Some novels wear their hearts on their sleeves. Or more precisely, in their titles. Secret Daughter is one such example, where the heartaches of motherhood are matched by an adopted daughter's yearning to find her true family.
First-time author Shilpi Somaya Gowda brings to life two opposing but heart-rending concerns to jump-start her novel - infertility for North American women and the disregard for girls in India - through the stories of two families, the American Thakkars, both doctors, and the poverty-stricken Merchants in rural India.
After Kavita's first child, a daughter, is snatched away by her husband at birth, she decides the moment her second daughter is born to take the child to Mumbai. At the orphanage, she gives her days-old daughter a name, Usha, and a single silver bangle.
Meanwhile in California, Somer is realizing that she may never have the child she so desperately wants. Her husband proposes a solution: adopt a child from the country of his birth. But everything about India irks her: the heat and dust, the bureaucratic shenanigans, the loss of privacy within his family. Only the one-year-old with the gold-flecked eyes in the shabby orphanage, accidentally renamed Asha, is a blessing.
The novel switches back and forth between the two families for the next 20 years, as one mother prays for Usha and the other worries about losing Asha to a dream. Kavita finally bears the all-important boy, eventually forgiving her husband for his callousness as their continued poverty forces a move to Mumbai, where they end up at first in the infamous Dharavi slum. Their sacrifices to provide their son an education do not lead to the happiness they desire.
Somer, once ambitious, feels a growing helplessness as the teenaged Asha begins to demand more answers about her "real" family and why she has experienced so little of Indian culture. Even Somer's husband Kris (short for Krishnan) begins to doubt their happy family routine, dousing his food with the ever-present bottle of hot sauce against the blandness of their lives.
Secret Daughter shifts gears as the university-going Asha travels to India for the first time on a journalism fellowship, a decision that compels Somer to reconsider her life. Although Asha's other agenda is to find her birth family, she falls into the warm embrace of her father's family, particularly with her storytelling Dadima.
Like her mother before her, Asha becomes the reader's de facto guide to all things Indian, except this time the country is not an enemy but a homecoming. But her naiveté feels like a device as others, such as her mentor at The Times of India, give her the facts about the real India as she prepares to work on a story about life in Dharavi, far from the life of privilege in her grandmother's world with its high-society weddings.
The novel is often emotionally poignant, especially when Gowda taps into the losses and fears that both mothers face, or as Asha slowly begins to appreciate what a family in all its intricacies can mean.
Yet Secret Daughter is uneven. Somer's story feels slighter, less drawn out, and her side of the family feels almost ignored, as if it is more opaque to Gowda. The men, too, don't have depth; their few insights are quick sketches. Some, like Kavita's son, have virtually no voice at all, despite the fact that he is as troubled as the rest, and his actions have a great impact on the latter part of the novel.
Despite such flaws, Gowda, who was born and raised in Toronto and currently lives in Texas, does a good job keeping the novel moving along quickly, and, fortunately, she keeps the conclusion from becoming too trite. Although it could have used more nuance, Secret Daughter is a worthy entry into the world of chick-lit - and its progeny, mom-lit.
Piali Roy is a freelance writer in Toronto with a special interest in the history and current events of South Asia.