Priya is an Indian-American woman living in Silicon Valley. She wants a baby more than almost anything else in her life but she and her husband, Madhu, have suffered several devastating miscarriages. So Priya has decided that their best recourse now is to use a surrogate mother to carry their baby to term. She's researched the idea and joined online forums for women using surrogates and she's chosen the doctor, clinic, and mother that she wants, all near Madhu's family in India. Her own mother thinks that her decision exploits a poor woman in India for her womb and she is incredibly disapproving while Priya's husband is willing to do as she wants even if he isn't completely convinced or as desperate for a baby as she is.
Asha is the woman who will carry Priya and Madhu's baby. She is married to Pratap and they have two young children. Pratap is a painter and they live in a tiny hut in a small village. Asha wants more for her children than she and Pratap can provide; in particular she wants to be able to afford to send their oldest son, a clearly gifted child, to a good school. Only by earning money as a surrogate can she afford to do this. Her sister-in-law has been through the surrogacy experience herself and encouraged Asha to do it. Pratap is supportive as well, especially seeing the apartment that his brother and sister-in-law bought with the proceeds of Kaveri's surrogacy. Even so, Asha has doubts about the ease and rightness of the process, emotionally and morally, as well as thanks to the cultural taboo surrounding it requiring her to keep this pregnancy and the baby's fate a secret. Before her doubts overwhelm her though, she is committed and carrying Priya and Madhu's baby.
The novel flips back and forth between Priya's and Asha's lives. Each of them have their own concerns and anxiety over the entire situation in which they find themselves. Priya is elated that she will finally be a mother but she worries that her own mother's concern that she is exploiting a poor woman is not entirely off base. She's also terrified that something will go wrong with the baby and pregnancy even as it progresses halfway around the world from her. Asha wonders how she can remain aloof enough from loving the child that grows under her heart to simply hand the baby over to strangers after nine months and she wonders if the financial compensation is really enough to give away a piece of herself. The surrogacy itself gives both women hope for something they would otherwise never have: for Priya, a child, and for Asha, the means to appropriately educate her amazing son. As the pregnancy progresses, each woman feels the strain of her decision on her marriage and on her emotional well-being. Occasionally interspersed in the text are posts from the internet support forum that Priya has found since no one in her actual life understands what she is going through. Asha's support comes mainly from the other surrogate mothers living with her at the Home For Happy Mothers. In both cases, there are women whose opinions on each aspect of the process are in accord with and those who differ from both Priya's and Asha's feelings.
Malladi fairly presents two sides to the complicated ethical dilemma presented by the idea of seeking a surrogate in a developing or third world country. The cost for surrogacy is far more than just the financial outlay or income involved and the characters of both Priya and Asha clearly demonstrate that. In fact, the issue encompasses class and privilege, family politics, and gender roles, as well as the strength and determination of mother love. Because the currency of surrogacy is the female body there is much at play here and Malladi addresses several aspects of this very emotionally freighted practice. The move from a purely clinical transaction to a strange but ultimately fleeting (by definition) intimacy is well handled and makes the reader really think about both sides of the situation. Both major characters, Priya and Asha, are imperfect and human in their portrayal and in their feelings about this complicated issue. There are moments that felt a bit repetitive and the forum posts, while giving easy insight into Priya's state of mind, came off as more flip sounding than the rest of the novel. Priya's and Asha's pasts are integrated pretty seamlessly into the present of the text and dividing the whole into three distinct trimesters of pregnancy, each with its own concerns and anxieties was a fun structural decision. The novel is an emotional look at the international politics of babies, the cost of surrogacy, the drive towards motherhood, and the abiding hope that so complicates all of this.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.