Sunday, September 23, 2012

secret daughter: review

When I pulled Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda out of my holiday book bag, I told STG how excited I was to be reading it. I explained, somewhat inarticulately, that I find, in general, that writers of the South Asian diaspora - writers like Sith, Martel and Rushdie - somehow capture in their stories the fertile, lush, and humid atmosphere of the countries that birthed them. I expected the same of Gowda, and although I eagerly lapped up this story of motherhood, the atmosphere itself was somewhat lacking.
Click to view on Amazon

Secret Daughter is the story of a baby girl adopted from Mumbai by a mixed couple - Indian dad & American mom. She is raised like most upper middle class girls [read 'slightly boring']. While the book has an intriguing back & forth structure that compares Mumbai over 20 years with life in American over 20 years, we don't spend enough time in either location or with the characters in those locations to get any great sense of depth. 

On the other hand, what do we observe in the characters is painfully familiar. Mother'daughter struggles. Mother-in-laws and the many ways to unintentionally insult them. Mom's doing their best but not knowing if that best is good enough.  Children making choices their parents blame themselves for and try to pretend aren't happening. Relationships that atrophy from neglect. Jobs that happen by default because other choices are more important. The tensions in this story are real and relatable - it is only the environment they happen in and the characters they happen to that I found lacking.

Secret Daughter is absolutely worth the read. That it lacks the lushness of Vikram Seth or the intellectual stimulation of Salman Rushdie may not be a real criticism - one theme of the book is valuing different cultures. Maybe it's time for me to give up my opinion that the cultures of South Asia are inherently more interesting, ancient and therefore valuable than anything North America has to offer. Maybe the familiar has it's own value. 

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