Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
In rural India, Kavita Merchant’s first child is born a girl, causing her husband Javu to take the baby from her and give it to his brother to dispose of. Javu rationalizes that they need a son to help in the fields, and they would have to pay a dowry to get any girl married off, a daughter would be nothing more than a burden. Kavita does not accept this reasoning so easily, however. When her second pregnancy comes to term, she first hides her labor from him, and then demands to be given one night with the baby she has named Usha. Instead of allowing her second daughter to be killed as well, this newly delivered mother walks from her rural village to Mumbai in order to place Usha in an orphanage where she might have hope of a better life.
Meanwhile, in California Somer and her husband Krishnan are struggling with infertility. Krishnan was born and raised in Mumbai, coming to America only for undergraduate and medical school, until he fell in love with and married Somer, also a physician. After Somer repeatedly fails to get pregnant, or to carry a pregnancy to term, Krishnan suggests that they might want to turn to adoption, and recommends that they use an orphanage his mother patronizes in Mumbai. Other than bringing home their precious Asha, however, their trip to India is somewhat of a disaster. Somer feels ignored and left out, that she doesn’t fit in, and this remnant of her time in India carries over into her life with her husband and child going forward, leads her to attempt to keep both of them away from India.
This was an incredibly moving book. I nearly cried for both Kavita and for Somer within the first 50 pages of the book: Kavita for the loss of her first daughter and the deep sadness of having to give up Usha; Somer for the pain of being able to have the child she wanted so dearly. Somer was a bit of a cold character for much of the middle of the book, which made her somewhat hard to connect to, but she felt very real to me, regardless. She was so afraid of losing what she had that she all but pushed it away for her.
I loved Gowda’s writing and got completely carried away with the story she was telling. Often Somer’s coldness would keep me from immersing myself fully into the book, but the emotional beginning to “Secret Daughter” pulled me in before I had a chance to get turned off by my lack of connection with one of the main characters. It let me see Somer as a real person whose motivations I could understand, even if i didn’t always agree with her behavior.
This was a fabulous story from a very talented debut author. Highly recommended.