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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Secret Daughter a Heart-Wrenching Story, Beautifully Told

(Image from Indiebound)

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.
(Readalikes: Reminded me a bit of Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood; Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger; and a little of Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim)
Grade: A-
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs) and mature subject matter
To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Secret Daughter from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written.


  1. I will definitely have to read this book, Susan. I recenty read and wrote about THE RED THREAD, a book detailing the adoption of 6 Chinese daughters. I shared quite a bit in that review about my own life (I'm an adopted child) and about our 2 nieces who are adopted Chinese daughters. The book spoke to my heart so clearly because the author included the stories of the birth mothers as well as the adopted mothers. I said that there is no adopted child who hasn't wondered about their birth family - wondered and pondered and imagined why.

    My Mom was always very clear to my sister and brother and I that she felt we were gifts to her - chosen - her word - wanted so much - again her words. She was a little sensitive about talking with us concerning our birth families. Mom truly felt that we were not the children of her body, but we definitely were the children of her heart. Hugs to you.

  2. I'm going to be on this tour later this month. After your glowing review, I can't wait to read it!

  3. This one sounds fantastic! Thanks for sharing, as always!

  4. We are currently reading this book for our book club read. Truly an amazing story. I can't wait to discuss it with my book club members. Should be quite an interesting discussion!

  5. I've seen this book, and I will have to add it. Thanks so much for the review.

  6. This was a great review, my nephew has an adopted child from Viet Nam.
    Will definitely look into reading this book.

  7. Terrific review and recommend!! I am forwarding this on to my friend who just had her new little 10 month old sealed to them!! She's already wanting to start the process to get another!!


  8. I did not like this book as much as you did. I thought it had tons of potential but it just wasn't realized. I found the characters flat and unsympathetic and the writing was a little too cheesy for me. Check out my review here if you interested.

  9. Kay - Thanks so much for your comment! I had no idea you were adopted. I'm sure it's true that adopted children are always curious about their birth families, no matter how stable and loving their adoptive families are. I completely understand that, even if the idea's a little scary for us adoptive parents :) Even though we have a closed adoption (the birth mother's choice), I love the idea of open adoption, which helps the adopted child understand all the whys and wherefores of his/her adoption.

    I really need to read THE RED THREAD. It sounds amazing.

    Tricia - I hope you enjoy it!

    Amanda - It is :)

    Laura - I bet it will make for some interesting discussion. I might suggest it for my book club as well.

    Anita - You're very welcome :)

    Tribute - I love adoption. Not only do my husband and I have an adopted daughter, but we've got adopted nieces and other family members. I love it!

    Gaye - Adoption's incredible, it really is.

    Lahni - Really? Cheesy? I didn't think that at all, but then adoption is seriously close to my heart, so I can hardly even think of it without tearing up.

    It's interesting that you mention the writing style, because it really is kind of ... stark. Except that's not quite the word. The story's not quite as rich and detailed as I would have liked and, I agree, Kavita could have used some filling out, but the story still really worked for me.

  10. I feel the same way about books dealing with infertility - they touch me in a special place because of my struggles with secondary infertility.
    And I used to watch all those "Birth Day" stories on TLC as well, but I can't bear to watch them anymore. So I definitely know the types of feelings this book must have raised for you.

    Thanks so much for being on the tour - I think you were the perfect person to be sharing your thoughts on this book.

  11. Just finished this last night. Your review was right on. One of my favorites of this year.


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