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A stunning new novel—full of wit and warmth—from the bestselling author of The Mango Season.
In trendy Silicon Valley, Priya has everything she needs—a loving husband, a career, and a home—but the one thing she wants most is the child she’s unable to have. In a Southern Indian village, Asha doesn’t have much—raising two children in a tiny hut, she and her husband can barely keep a tin roof over their heads—but she wants a better education for her gifted son. Pressured by her family, Asha reluctantly checks into the Happy Mothers House: a baby farm where she can rent her only asset—her womb—to a childless couple overseas. To the dismay of friends and family, Priya places her faith in a woman she’s never met to make her dreams of motherhood come true.
Together, the two women discover the best and the worst that India’s rising surrogacy industry has to offer, bridging continents and cultures to bring a new life into the world—and renewed hope to each other.
(contains some spoilers)
Told in alternating POVs, this story lets you into two starkly different lives of the women – Priya and Asha. Spanning nine months, we see their ups and downs, their moral dilemma and them assuaging their own guilt.
Following years of miscarriages and failed IVF treatments, Priya opts for surrogacy. After a lot of research and a trip to India with her husband Madhu, she finds a good, affordable clinic and a surrogate – Asha. Priya then returns to the US and spends the next many months waiting, worrying, sending care packages to Asha and gifts for her and her entire family. During this time, we also see more of her life with her husband, their social circle and also Priya’s niggling doubts of whether she will be able to land a good job if she does take a break from her career. Since Priya has been brought up and raised in the US, all her reactions during her India trips – such as the traffic and beggars is understandable. It is something that I have seen and read too many times; so I almost expected it. But where I couldn’t understand Priya is that though she mentions a couple of times that she has always wanted to find her “roots” and so she was happy that by marrying an Indian, she is somewhere closer to discovering herself; she doesn’t seem to be too fond of anything “Indian” – I mean, she can’t stand her husband’s Indian friends, has pretty condescending thoughts towards their wives, doesn’t watch any Indian movies (well, okay she doesn’t watch Bollywood, and Bollywood is not equal to all Indian movies, but it is just something I inferred not just because of this but also some other things in the book), learnt to cook Indian food by going to Indian cooking classes only after feeling that slight twinge of jealousy on seeing her husband relish the kind of food his mom makes on their Indian trips. I just felt she was too judgmental and snarky and well, it didn’t help that some of the Indian characters she was acquainted with felt like exaggerations of “behaviors” that is already associated with Indians. Take, for example – “Indians don’t respect personal space”. How is this proved in the book? Well, in the dinner party at Madhu’s friends’ place, one of the wives casually mentions the surrogacy (which Madhu had shared only with her husband who is his best friend) in front of everyone; thereby outing their secret (because they didn’t want to really let everyone know yet) and also providing everyone the opportunity to join in the conversation. Everyone start asking Priya and Madhu for more details and one of them even cracks a funny (not!) joke about it. Honestly, I cringed.
But, what about the other Indian characters? I felt Priya saw every Indian stay-at-home wife as someone dumb and just happy to live off her husband’s money. Heck, she even described one of the wives as “dim”. Umm.. why? We don’t get any reason. So, I am assuming it is because she doesn’t work. She continues to leap into judgments about all the stay-at-home Indian wives she knew throughout the book. Both in US and India. Funnily enough, Priya’s condescension doesn’t extend to her non-Indian friends.
Okay, I will stop with ranting about it and proceed with the rest of my review. I really liked Priya and Madhu as a couple. We just got the right amount of romance, history and glimpse into the daily couple-y things they do. Priya and Madhu have been together for quite a few years and so it is just nice to read the “routine” they have fallen into after years of living together – all the small habits and things you do every day. The way they deal with the whole surrogacy process is also interesting. Priya is just very vocal about everything she feels, all the stress and anticipation as she calls Asha as frequently as possible, to talk to her, and keep asking about the well-being of the mother and the unborn child. Madhu just internalizes everything and asks Priya to back off or calm down sometimes.
While there is a lot about Priya’s side of the story that I thought was sketched well, I personally felt Asha’s was better. She is sort of manipulated into becoming a surrogate as her sister-in-law had done it once. She is never fully convinced about it, and finds it unnatural but seeing how her brother-in-law managed to buy a new flat with the money they received, she agrees to do it too. Not for a flat, but to pay for son’s admission to a better school – one that is equipped to hone his exceptional intelligence. As the weeks go by, she slowly sees the Happy Mothers House for what it is – just a shady business. We also meet other surrogates in the house, and as Asha spends time talking to the others, she gets more apprehensive as time passes by, wondering whether she will find the strength to give up the baby. She wonders whether the scales are truly balanced – Just how much money can really be a worthy price for a womb? She also slowly realizes that the amount she is going to get is nowhere near what is required to pay for her son’s entire education and is terrified that she might have to go through this again after a few years. Gosh, I felt so bad for her when I saw how hard it is for her to even voice out any opinion to her husband regarding financial decisions. She has been raised in a small village where patriarchy rules and where women don’t really have the final say in such decisions. She has also grown up seeing men shout at and beat their wives. So she idolizes her husband Pratap who is “unlike” the other men she has grown up seeing because hey, Pratap is gentle with words, doesn’t beat her and spends time with the kids after work. Considering where she has come from and the life she has seen around her, she considers herself lucky to be married to him. He works outside, and she cooks at home and takes care of the kids, and earns a bit by sewing whenever possible. It was upsetting to her Pratap feeling entitled about the money and entertaining the plans of a flat even though Asha is against it. He brings up the topic more than once. The story resolves in a way that they might have money for the flat without compromising on their son’s studies, but honestly neither Pratap nor his brother inspire much confidence when it comes to sensing their wives’ apprehensions and respecting their wishes. I was left with the queasy feeling that Asha will end up being a surrogate again after a few years.
Coming to the overall storyline, it was nothing murky or complicated. But, I just felt like the author toyed with a couple of ideas to make a “shady surrogacy scam” storyline but didn’t really expand on it much. And I think that was okay as it was easy to understand what the author implied anyways. But I felt a couple of other scenes that were unnecessary and could have easily been edited out. For example, there were two dinner parties, and I felt one was completely unnecessary and didn’t add anything new. I also have a feeling there were some other ideas, like confrontation scenes between two families which never made it to the book. So yea, some awkward editing.
While we are on the subject of editing, I wish the last paragraph of the book was completely edited out. It tried to summarize everything as some sort of HEA for both the ladies and that despite their differences, they were “equal”. Uh, no. Priya’s challenge will be “How to raise a baby while balancing a six-figure paying job”. Asha’s challenge is going to be “How to send my kids to a city school for the next fifteen years without becoming a surrogate again”.