I've always loved adoption stories. Something about all the heartbreak, sacrifice and enormous love that goes into the process has always spoken directly to my heart. Back when I still thought bearing children would be an easy, unwrinkled process for me, I'd watch TLC's Adoption Stories and bawl my eyes out. The program no longer airs, but even if it did, I wouldn't be able to watch it now. After adopting my daughter, my feelings on the subject are so tender that all it takes is hearing the word "adopt" to make my eyes leak. And yet, I still love adoption stories. Which is why I approached Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda with such eagerness. Not to mention a big box of Kleenex.
The book tells the parallel stories of two mothers - one a 31-year-old pediatrician in California, the other a peasant woman living in rural India - and the child that brings them together. After suffering multiple miscarriages, Somer Whitman Thakkar discovers that she is infertile. The news shocks her, the knowledge that she will never bear a child shaking her to her core. While Somer grieves, then prepares herself for invasive fertility treatments that have little chance of working, her husband suggests adoption. Furious with Krishnan for giving up on her, on them, Somer refuses to consider the idea. Until she realizes how futile it is to dream of something that will likely never happen, especially while hundreds of abandoned children linger in foreign orphanages, just waiting for good families to rescue them. When Somer sees the baby who's been chosen for her and Krishnan, a little Indian girl with curly black hair and stunning hazel eyes, she knows she's made the right decision. Soon, the couple's on their way to Bombay, intent on bringing the child home to California.
Meanwhile, Kavita Merchant mourns the loss of the infant she has just borne. She knows her husband, Jasu, is right - they can't afford a baby on the meager salary they make from working the fields. Especially a girl. They need sons to help with the work, to carry on the family name, to support them in their old age. A girl will only cost them money they can't afford to spend. But Kavita wants this beautiful, hazel-eyed child, even while she knows her husband will never allow her to keep the baby. Refusing to let this newborn daughter suffer the same grisly fate as her last, she whisks the child off to Bombay, where she places her in a grimy orphanage. The anklet she places on the baby's foot is the only token Kavita can give her child, the only proof the girl will have that she was loved on sight, instantly cherished by the woman who gave her life.
Twenty years later, Asha Thakkar clasps the anklet between her hands, wondering about the people who gave it to her. Although she's enjoyed a stable childhood with parents who doted on her, Asha still feels as if something's missing in her life. She's learned a little about her country of birth from her father, but she's never visited India. She knows bits of her story, just not enough to feel whole. She holds pieces to the puzzle of who she is, yet she can't get a complete picture. So, when the opportunity to study in India for a year arises, Asha takes it, even though she knows it will infuriate her mother. Maybe for that very reason. Still, Asha knows that staying with Krishnan's family in Mumbai will give her a chance to get to know her extended adoptive family, see her home country with her own eyes and, maybe, help her find the answers to the questions that plague her.
As Asha digs for her roots in India, Somer grapples with her own worries and anger. Krishnan's increasing distance doesn't make things any easier. Her marriage crumbling, Somer embarks on a journey not unlike her daughter's. It's a desperate search for herself that will end the same way Asha's does - with heartbreak, with illumination, and with understanding. At the same time, Kavita continues to mourn her lost daughter, never realizing that Asha is closer than she ever could have imagined. All the stories converge in a taut, emotional finale that proves redemption can often be found in the most unlikely of places.
Gowda writes with strength, heart and wisdom, making Secret Daughter a stunning debut novel that will stir the mothering heart in anyone. It's a heart-wrenching story, beautifully told, about longing, fulfillment and everything in between. I wept with Somer because I didn't just feel her pain, I knew her pain. And her joy. And her love for a little girl who came from another, but is somehow her own. Secret Daughter moved me, not because the story's sentimental - because it's strong, stirring and satisfying. Not unlike adoption itself. It's so powerful that I'm still sniffling and, thanks to Gowda, I'm fresh out of Kleenex.
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs) and mature subject matter