I have a love-hate relationship with book clubs. Officially I am a member of several (oh, all right – about twenty. I am a serial book-club joiner) – I cruise Craigslist and Meetup fairly often and love learning about new clubs in the area that will help me get acquainted with new books and new people. There have been a few book clubs that were really wonderful forces in my life at one time or another, and through which I’ve made some lasting friends. Overall, though, book clubs are mostly something that I complain about. There is usually at least one person in every club who is painfully annoying – who has a long list of topics she absolutely refuses to read about or who unfavorably compares every book to Twilight or who thinks she’s better than everyone else because she’s a college professor. And a surprising number of book clubs are run by dictators – a couple of times, I’ve more or less had to audition to be in a book club. Once I had to meet a panel of members at a café and discuss a book with them before I was allowed to meet the larger group. Another time, the leader disbanded the club by email on the day of a meeting that was scheduled to be at my home. I had already bought food and moved furniture when an email arrived said that “too many people were backing out” and that the club was a bad idea in the first place and that the whole thing was off. I emailed the club back to say that I was prepared to host and would love to have anyone who could make it come over (there were at least four or five people who had said they could attend), but everyone replied sheepishly to the effect that Miriam was the boss and it would be best if we all just did what she said. It was like sixth grade at a girls’ school all over again.
I could write a book about book clubs.
One of the clubs I am in is called “Indian Fiction and Indian Food” – and what could be better than that combination, right? I don’t have a ton of experience with Indian fiction – although I love Rohinton Mistry and Thrity Umrigar and Jhumpa Lahiri (who is Indian-American) and V.S. Naipaul (who is Trinidadian, but with Indian heritage) – but I love Indian food. I have been a member of this group for a good long while, receiving their monthly emails and sometimes buying or checking out the books and reading them, but I’ve never made it to a meeting. Recently I decided that I really should try to go to this club’s meetings – the people seem nice in their emails, and even if the people or the books weren’t much, it is hard to go wrong with Indian food. Fish masala, I thought. Chicken saag. Mango lassis. GARLIC NAAN. I went to the Meetup website and RSVP’ed YES.
But, unfortunately, all of this happened during the month that this club was reading Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s Secret Daughter. This book shows every sign of being a quick read – it’s written in contemporary language with very little in the way of descriptive or explanatory passages that could slow a plot down, and the chapters are short. There was no reason in the world that I shouldn’t have been able to read this book in a couple of days. Except one: this book is very, very bad.
Let me be clear about what I mean by “bad”: there is nothing in this book’s premise to suggest that it shouldn’t be good. The premise is this: Kavita and Jasu are an Indian couple. They come from a rural village and still follow traditional customs like arranged marriages. They are poor, and it is common in their village for families either to practice selective abortion to avoid having daughters or to kill or abandon baby girls when they are born because girls are considered an expense: their parents will have to support them until they are married and then save an enormous amount of money for their dowries and then rarely see them again after they are married. I get the sense that Gowda expects her readers to be highly shocked and upset to learn that these practices were going on in rural India in the 1980’s. Look, lady – I mentally shouted at the book more than once – I’m thirty-six, I’m educated, and the Oprah Empire has existed for my entire adolescent and adult life. You’re going to have to do better than this if you want to shock me, OK?
Jasu takes Kavita’s first baby girl away shortly after she is born and has his cousin kill it. A couple of year later, when Kavita has a second baby, she arranges for her sister to help her and the two of them sneak away the day after her daughter is born and deliver her to an orphanage in Bombay. A couple of years later, they finally have a baby boy, and when their son is five they move to the city (now Mumbai) in hopes of making more money than they make in their village.
Meanwhile, another plot is unfolding in California. Somer has recently learned that she cannot get pregnant, and some verbiage is tossed around about how her fundamental purpose as a woman will never be fulfilled if she can’t have children. (Let me clarify: the purpose of my sarcasm is not to mock the idea that being a mother is a supremely important purpose for a woman. I actually have an enormous amount of sympathy for women who can’t conceive. What I am criticizing is Gowda’s characterization of Somer – whom I don’t believe for one second has any true desire to be a mother and, later, after she adopts, is characterized as extremely cold and distant toward her daughter). Her husband, Krishnan, is the son of a wealthy Mumbai family who emigrated to the United States for medical school, where he met Somer. His family recommends that they seek an adoption in India, and – you’ve figured it out, right? – the baby they adopt is Jasu and Kavita’s daughter, the one Kavita took to the orphanage the day after she was born.
From here, the novel proceeds through a series of alternating viewpoints – all of the characters named above serve as the narrators of some chapters, as does Somer and Krishnan’s daughter Asha, Krishnan’s mother Sarla, and a few others. Long story short, Asha grows up to develop an interest in journalism and, as a junior at Brown, earns a fellowship to go to India to make a documentary. Her secondary goal, of course, is to track down her birth parents. Lots of predictable things ensue from there.
As I briefly mentioned above, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the premise of this novel. Generational conflict, identity, poverty, relationships between men and women – we will never stop needing more literature and other art that deals with these subjects. When I started reading it, I may have slightly suspected that I would dislike it – since I know I have an extremely low tolerance for emotionally manipulative treatment of “women’s issues,” but I did not AT ALL think it would be as bad as it is.
Let me lay out a few reasons:
• Gowda consistently and egregiously breaks two important rules of fiction writing. These two rule violations are related to each other, I think, and each one exacerbates the other. One is the longstanding writing cliché of “show, don’t tell.” I don’t much enjoy spending time talking about this problem, since I am as bored by clichés as any serious reader and since this rule is so elementary as to barely be worth discussing in detail. Ultimately, it seems to me as if Gowda wanted to tell her readers that there are many difficulties and challenges involved in being a woman. True enough, but if that is her message, she would be better off writing articles or working for an international women’s rights foundation or producing a documentary or somehow wrangling her way into a guest appearance on Oprah. If her goal is to write fiction, then she needs to get rid of this smarmy moral-of-the-story and put her characters into real and individual action.
• The second rule that Gowda breaks is much more offensive to me than the first. She writes as if her readers are stupid. I hate being talked down to – by novelists or by real people in real life. Again, this novel feels like a lesson in sociology – and that’s a bad thing – but it is in Gowda’s creation of the character of Asha that her sermonizing-as-storytelling becomes most egregious. It seems to me that Asha is supposed to be a stand-in for the reader as Gowda envisions that reader to be. Asha is a stupid, naïve, wide-eyed innocent American. Now, wide-eyed innocent Americans exist – there is nothing fundamentally implausible about creating a character like this. However, Asha as Gowda portrays her would never have the drive or assertiveness or chutzpah to a) be accepted to a university like Brown, b) be granted a prestigious fellowship for year-long study abroad, or c) have the courage to enter the Mumbai slums as Asha does for her work as a journalist. Gowda goes to extremes to construct Asha as passive, ignorant, and happily naïve – and then she has her do things that no passive or ignorant person would ever do. Again, I see her as a stand-in for the reader; Gowda assumes that we do not know that women are still subjected to arranged marriages and that children in India still languish in orphanages in slums even at the end of the twentieth century, and Asha’s shock and disbelief when she learns about these injustices is supposed to mirror the reader’s. But Asha is supposed to be well educated; as a child, she attends a private school that is obviously modeled on the Harker School in San Jose, where she would have been exposed to basic matters of social justice, and in spite of the fact that her mother is perhaps the least inquisitive character ever created in fiction (Somer, by the way, also shows no sign of actually having the advanced education that Gowda tells us she has received), Asha was, after all, raised by one Indian parent. I don’t mean to suggest that an author can’t create complacent characters; of course she can – but she then has to give them the kinds of lives that actual complacent people live. And these lives don’t include prestigious international journalism fellowships.
• Gowda takes absolutely no risks as a storyteller. If she had backed up and looked at her material through anything other than her stubbornly female lens, she might have seen that there is great potential in the character of Jasu. Early on, he is portrayed as a villain, when he comes into his wife’s room after she gives birth and takes his baby daughter away to be killed. Since their marriage was arranged, Kavita knows very little about Jasu at this point and thinks that he very well might be a true villain – but later we learn that Jasu was being an obedient son, turning his daughter over to a cousin to be killed because that was what his parents and his culture expected him to do. After the birth of their son, when Jasu decides to take his wife and son to Mumbai, where they live in deplorable conditions in a slum and where he starts out doing terrible degrading and dangerous factory work, badly injures his arm, and slowly gains a small amount of prestige at work and is able to move his family out of the slum only to slowly and painfully recognize that his son – for whose eventual existence Jasu and his wife sacrificed two daughters – is a scoundrel and a criminal. If the definition of a protagonist is the character who most profoundly grows and changes as a result of the novel’s plot, then Jasu has much greater potential to serve as protagonist than any of the female characters. Given a little more creativity on Gowda’s part, Jasu’s point of view could have been a very compelling vehicle for the material in this novel.
• Finally, this novel strikes me as “diluted.” By that, part of what I mean is that it’s too long. But if you know me well or have read a lot of my other reviews, you know that length is not something I ever complain about in novels. If novels are good, I want them to be long – if I am invested in a fictional world, I want to stay there for a while – and if they are bad, I complain about whatever qualities make them bad, not specifically about the length, although reading a long, bad novel is certainly not something I enjoy. And at 339 pages of light, contemporary prose, Secret Daughter is certainly not excessively long in any kind of objective sense. But it’s diluted – as if someone poured a whole lot of water into the content of the novel, filling up the extra space between the plot elements that should be taken up with subtle characterization, interior monologue (which is not the same as a summary of a character’s thoughts, by the way), and evocative imagery. As I think about how I wish this novel had been written differently, I keep coming back to the idea of the collection of linked short stories. This is a genre that I respect and that I think is extremely difficult to do well. When collections of linked stories succeed, the empty spaces between stories become extremely significant. One story immerses us in a single point of view in a single place at a single moment – and then when that story is over, we get a chance to catch our breath before being immersed in a voice that is intentionally very different from the first one. Because these intermissions exist, collections of linked stories can afford to be extremely intense – even painfully so; they are concentrated, which is the opposite of diluted. Gowda seems to be striving for this effect, but even though she rotates between several different points of view, she does not do much to create a series of distinct voices. The whole novel operates in her reality – the author’s – and never really enters that of any of the characters.
I haven’t yet mentioned that in the novel’s final scene, Asha and her biological mother, Kavita, are in the same place – a Hindu temple in Mumbai. Gowda’s foreshadowing that this convergence will occur is painfully overdone, and I spent about half of the novel dreading the kind of sappy, sentimental – and totally implausible – reunion scene that she seemed to be setting up. Gowda, however, chooses not to make her characters aware of each other’s presence; both women are in the crowded temple and both are thinking of the other (Kavita has never stopped thinking about the daughter she left at the Mumbai orphanage), but they don’t actually meet each other. In some ways, this was a good choice on Gowda’s part, since a chance meeting in one of the world’s most populous cities between a mother and daughter who were separated the day after the child was born would be highly improbable, but I can’t for the life of me understand why Gowda spent so much time foreshadowing a reunion that wasn’t going to happen. But the main reason that I’m spending so much time on the final scene is that I think it could potentially make an interesting setting for a play – again, I continue to think about things that Gowda could do to make her novel less diluted. If she wrote a play, she could use the temple as the setting, and all of her characters – Kavita and Jasu and their delinquent son Vijay, Kavita’s sister Rupa, Somer, Krishnan, Asha, Sarla – could make a series of entrances and exits, engaged in their own little sagas and with their own very distinct priorities (Vijay could be there to rob people, for example; Asha could initially visit the temple to get footage for her documentary but could then return, having come to see it as a spiritual space, etc.). Backstory could be provided as needed in the form of monologues (which are acceptable in plays in a way that they often aren’t in fiction). In the play version that I’m imagining, I still don’t think a moment of recognition – in which Kamila knows that she is seeing her biological daughter and Asha knows that she is seeing her biological mother – would be a good idea, but they could meet as anonymous people in the temple, and the reader or audience would know the significance of the moment even though the characters do not.
Obviously this question of genre is moot – this novel is written and published and done with – and if you’re thinking that I’ve spent more hours of my life in creative writing workshops than could possibly be good for any human being, you could well be right. But all of this is a long way of saying that while I did not enjoy this novel one bit, I do want to treat its characters and situation with respect and try to shape them into a viable piece of art – not because I think Gowda is actually going to take my advice but because that’s the kind of reviewer I want to be. I want to be an honest reviewer and a tough one – I don’t want to offer praise unless I mean it – and I also want to use the process of reviewing to grow as a writer myself and to show my love and respect for the extremely difficult craft of writing.
So there we go. This was a lousy novel, and I don’t recommend it at all. I am also sorry to say that since I disliked this novel so much I read it rather slowly – and therefore I didn’t finish it in time to attend my book club meeting. All that trouble, all that frustration, all that banging the book against the recliner armrest and scaring the cat, and I didn’t even get my garlic naan.
The world is full of injustice when one is a poor bookblogger.