Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

courtesy: booksaremyheroine. blogspot.ca

Summary courtesy of Goodreads:

On the eve of the monsoons, in a remote Indian village, Kavita gives birth to a baby girl. But in a culture that favors sons, the only way for Kavita to save her newborn daughter’s life is to give her away. It is a decision that will haunt her and her husband for the rest of their lives, even after the arrival of their cherished son.  Halfway around the globe, Somer, an American doctor, decides to adopt a child after making the wrenching discovery that she will never have one of her own. When she and her husband, Krishnan, see a photo of the baby with the gold-flecked eyes from a Mumbai orphanage, they are overwhelmed with emotion. Somer knows life will change with the adoption but is convinced that the love they already feel will overcome all obstacles.  Interweaving the stories of Kavita, Somer, and the child that binds both of their destinies, “Secret Daughter” poignantly explores the emotional terrain of motherhood, loss, identity, and love, as witnessed through the lives of two families–one Indian, one American–and the child that indelibly connects them.

I’ve had this on my TBR list for a while and after being absorbed by ROOM, I needed a book that would take me as far away from those themes as possible.  It did and it didn’t.  I was still confronted by the sacrifices mothers make for their children and by the victimization of women – but in a much different way.

I loved the omniscient narrator – Gowda makes sure to tell us everyone’s story: the birth family, the adoptive extended family, the adoptive parents and the adopted girl, Asha.  I loved knowing what every character felt and experienced as a consequence of their actions and the actions of others.

Despite this, I couldn’t shake the feeling the whole time I was reading that Somer, the adoptive mother, got a raw deal. I felt her frustration and pain as she learned of her infertility and when she finally became a mother through adoption it was wonderful.  Except, the happiness I expected her to revel in never came to fruition.  It seems like throughout her daughter’s upbringing, Somer was in a constant battle – with her husband, with social expectations, with her daughter and with herself.

I felt like I was reading two different books.  One book was about the parents and the other about the girl’s coming of age and journey of self-discovery.  At some point these converge – but I didn’t buy it when they did.  I don’t know – it felt like these characters did a lot to hurt and alienate each other, but in the end it’s all “happily ever after”?  Real life isn’t quite so neat…since this book seemed to look at the mess that life can sometimes be its conclusion seemed odd to me.  Nonetheless, I was fascinated by Dadima (Asha’s grandmother) and Kavita (Asha’s birth mother) and loved reading their stories.

Altogether, this is a good book.  It has solid characters and a strong plot.  It’s also a fascinating look at Indian culture.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

courtesy: violetcrush.wordpress.com

Summary courtesy of Goodreads:

Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace – the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century – Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.  A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. [… a] story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. 

This book chips away at my summer reading list and I have to admit, although the story is not all that new – it reminds of  Wildflower Hill by Kimberley Freeman a book I reviewed a while ago – it did keep me intrigued.  And, despite its length, I finished it rather quickly.

**few small spoilers throughout**

I feel like the summary does not provide enough detail about the scope and range of the book.  Although the summary focuses on Cassandra, I felt like the plot was more about the mystery Cassandra was solving – the origin of her grandmother.  We learn early in the novel that Nell, Cassandra’s grandmother, was found at the age of four in Australia.  She has no memory of being lost and was raised believing she was in the midst of her biological family.  At the age of 21, her father reveals the truth and this turns Nell’s world upside-down.  She essentially rejects all things and people that are familiar to her because she no longer feels a part of the world in which she grew up.  I found this really strange, I mean I can understand being angry and wishing to uncover the truth about her parents – but to reject her only source of support and love seems rather odd.

Nell only uncovers part of the story, it seemed that she was put on a ship to Australia from Cornwall, England – we find this out also fairly early on…and it is up to Cassandra to solve the mystery for us.  Why not Nell’s daughter, Leslie, you might wonder?  Because Leslie essentially severs all ties with Nell and Cassandra for a man.  Another strange action for a character to take and one that the author does not set up very well.  Might as well have Leslie die as far as I’m concerned because I find it rather baffling that after Nell was distant with Leslie for most of her life, Leslie would turn around and abandon Cassandra altogether.

But, this just covers the surface of the novel.  The other plot in this novel involves Cassandra’s ancestors.  So the novel moves through time.  It is 2005 for Cassandra, 1975 for Nell and 1908-1913 for the mysterious ancestors.

Morton does move seamlessly through the time periods and establishes a great cast of characters for each time period – but I found myself frustrated with each move.  At times I felt like Morton had attempted too much and many, many things were left unearthed or only touched upon briefly.  There were moments that I wished could be further explored, investigated and so I was left with questions.  Perhaps this is an effect that Morton wished to created – no matter how much we might discover about our past and our ancestor’s lives, we can’t ever truly know who they were and what they felt and experienced every day.  We can only piece clues together and fill in the rest with our imagination.  As a reader, however, I didn’t like it.

Although Cassandra’s story was touching, it was the story that least interested me partly because it’s almost cliche – woman must reconstruct old house and in the process meets fabulous man and reconstructs own life.  Seen it.  Read it. Let’s try something different this time, shall we?  Really, the only difference is that Cassandra is redoing the garden…the garden that holds all the secrets.

I almost wish each story had been told separately – perhaps in trilogy fashion.  Each time period, 2005, 1975 and 1908, is so rich in plot that it could be its own novel.

I will say this, Morton’s writing is strong.  It is clean, easy to follow and quite beautiful at times.  There are some wonderful fairy tales inserted throughout, written by the Authoress, Eliza Makepeace, that are fun to read.  The Forgotten Garden kept me entertained and it was fun to solve the mystery – which became quite evident early on (at least for me it did).  Sometimes this was good because it was neat to see the characters figure it out.  Most of the time it was annoying because I had to wait so long for them to figure it out.

I was left feeling very sad that I didn’t see Nell solving the mystery since it was so meaningful to her.  And, once I discovered Nell’s story, I felt really let down that Morton did not give me more insight into the relationship between her parents and the feelings of her mother…there were many moments that I felt the book was long for all the wrong reasons and the questions I had were not answered.  Despite these reactions, The Forgotten Garden is a good book, even though it wasn’t entirely satisfying.

Have you read any books lately that overall are good, but still left you feeling a bit let down?

Along Comes Merida Disney Pixar’s Brave

courtesy: allthingsfangirl.blogspot.ca

I simply could not wait to watch this movie.  Not because I love the creativity and classic tales told through animated films, but ever since we started watching movies with our son who is now 3, I realized just how “father-son” heavy most animated features are.  They are wonderful stories of learning and coming of age about boys, boys who would be men and men who must bond with their boys – whether those boys be boys, or fish, or little chickens, or cars, or rats, or ants, or even toys.  Which is wonderful for my son.  But, one day, if I am blessed, I hope to have a daughter, or a niece, or even as I think of the daughters of my dear friends and cousins…I wonder what kind of legacy is being left for them on the screen about what it means to be a girl?  And, what messages are there about the mother-daughter bond?

courtesy: monroesmile.blogspot.ca

There is a plethora of maternal choices of the evil variety.  We have witches, wicked-step mothers, evil queens, awful step-sisters and a thieving hag who wishes to be young forever.  Our only alternative is the fairy god-mother who is make-believe, magical and cannot teach our heroines how to deal with life and reality.

The protagonist is abandoned until Prince Charming shows up to save her.  Even the more recent movie Tangled (which I thought was adorable) leaves much to be desired in the way of a modern-day character for girls – although Rapunzel is a better fit than her predecessors since she can at least put up a great fight, is feisty and not afraid to speak for herself.

So naturally I went into Brave with high expectations.  And, it totally delivered.

courtesy: korpg.com

This movie is beautiful to look at with sweeping views of Pixar created Scotland.  The film opens with a tender moment between the Queen and a three year old Merida – a moment that any mother can identify with – the two are playing a giggle-filled game of hide ‘n seek where Merida manages to outsmart her mother every time.  Brilliant.

Merida grows up and is a Princess who refuses the traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood.  But, I don’t think that’s why she is a role model for girls.  It is her tenacity.  Her desire to learn more about herself and to embrace life.  She needs to be her own person first – and, that is a beautiful lesson to teach our daughters (and, our sons).

The loving and broken, caring and tense relationship Merida has with Elinor is one to which many girls can relate.  It is a relationship where both feel unheard.  Listening is a thread that runs through this movie; communication – in all of its forms – is essential in order for any relationship to succeed.  It is a lesson that both Princess Merida and Queen Elinor learn.

courtesy: themarysue.com

We learn much about Merida’s headstrong nature and her mother’s desire to see her comply with her royal duties.  The film takes all sorts of twists and turns – some are extremely unexpected – but, I loved that at the core of this movie, was the bond between a mother and her daughter.  Elinor tries to ready Merida for a life of duty and Merida challenges Elinor to remember who she was before she was Queen, before she was wife and mother.  Both witness the love one has for the other.  Both finally hear what the other has to say and both come to respect each other at a level that was unimaginable before their grand adventure.

Merida is strong – both in body and spirit.  Though she possesses the always-slim-Disney-Princess look – she is no waif. (And, after having recently seen Tangled, I believe Merida’s waistline is a tad “larger” than Rapunzel’s – improvement yes, but still quite unrealistic.)

Best of all is her mass of red curls that must have taken an army of animators to create throughout this film.  It had a life of it’s own.  Finally! Finally a princess whose hair is not perfectly straight or in perfect cascading waves.  A princess whose hair is as ferocious as she is.  Really, it’s worth seeing the movie just to see her hair.

She’s a horseback riding, bow and arrow toting Princess who takes on the most influential woman in the country and in her life – the Queen, her mother.  This is a touching story of the lengths to which mothers will go to show their girls how much they are loved and that life does not bring easy choices; and, the lengths to which girls will go to show their mothers that they can create new choices for themselves – with just the right amount of guidance and love from their mothers. No fairy-godmother or Prince Charming required.  These are two women who can save themselves.

I look forward to adding Brave to my son’s collection of Disney-Pixar films, just like little girls can learn from the adventures that boys undertake, so too can boys learn that a girls’ adventure can be just as inspiring.

Did you see Brave? What did you think of it?

Can We Have It All?

courtesy: todaysparent.com

Recently, The Atlantic published an article entitled Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter.

It was a very honest view of the constraints put upon women who want to excel in their careers and be  active mothers in the lives of their children.  The conclusion? It’s impossible.

The author writes of a fulfilling and highly demanding career in the White House and the continued feelings of failure she experienced because her adolescent son was experiencing trouble at school.  She notes that most women do what they can to spend as many of the toddler years as possible with their children and sacrifice the teenage years for their careers.

This reminded me of something a colleague of mine said to me not too long ago: children need their parents just as much, if not more, when they are in their teens.  It is a highly volatile time for a child and that is when parental love, guidance and support is most crucial.  It is also when we decide that they are independent and can fend for themselves.  Surely they don’t need mommy to feed them, clothe them or take them to the potty.  So mommy can go back to work in over-drive!  When the children are young, career is sacrificed and when the children grow, they are sacrificed.

Slaughter was criticized for her decision to sacrifice her career for her adolescent children; it rings so very anti-feminist.    Except, is it?  We do not live in a society that favours and supports raising children – I mean truly raising them.  Even for us Canadians who have the privilege of a one year maternity leave, we are left a little disoriented at the end of that year in the scramble to find adequate (and, affordable – though the two never seem to align) childcare when it is time to return to work.

Once at work, there is the negotiation of time, work-from-home options, the endless sick days we take for our children…and, that’s if we’re lucky to work in an environment that supports family.  Some careers demand our full attention and children and family are dropped from the priority list.

Slaughter calls for the beginning of a new dialogue.  One that involves looking at the needs of modern women who wish to engage in a thriving career and have a family.  This dialogue demands that women become outspoken and promote change at the legal level to ensure that the needs of children are being met without any sacrifice of career and that the needs of women are being met without the sacrifice of her children.  If it was possible for the feminist movement to exact great change in the lives of women 40-50 years ago, then it is possible for us to reopen the dialogue and exact change in the lives of women again.

I loved the honesty of her writing and the passion she has for promoting the interests of women and family.

Do you believe women can have it all now?  Or, do changes need to be made in economic, social and legal structures to allow us to have it all?

Everything Was Goodbye by Gurjinder Basran

Everything Was Good Bye by Gurjinder Basran

**spoiler alert** I will discuss the novel’s conclusion near the end of this post!

The opening sentences of this novel perfectly capture the kind of reading experience you will have with Everything Was Goodbye:

The smell of chai – fennel, cloves and cinnamon – tucked me into my blanket like a seed into a cardamom pod.  I steeped myself into waking, listening to the sounds of Sunday morning. (2)

Basran poetically spins her tail with beautiful images that intimately expose the spice and vibrant emotion of Indian culture.  Simultaneously, it is an ordinary tale of a girl, Meena, on a journey of self-discovery that severely clashes with the journey prepared for her by her culture.  The book trailer found on Basran’s website offers a good sense of what this book is about.  I had not idea books had trailers (where have I been?) nonetheless, here it is.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrtqUVw1CKU

I loved Meena.  Basran makes it easy to sympathise with her protagonist.  She is a seventeen year old who is angry, isolated, introverted and who must participate in the traditions of Indian family life.  Anyone who is from immigrant parents can relate to this in varying degrees.  It can be like living a dual life:  the Canadian you and the other you.  The you that is Canadian at school and with friends and the you that speaks another language, eats different food and tries desperately not to anger parents and elders with the Canadian you because it is a danger to cultural preservation.

Meena has dreams of writing that she must squirrel away because it is not the kind of career that would make her a desirable match for fine Indian young men.  She has feelings of love for a Canadian boy, Liam, that she must bury because it would never be allowed.  This novel pulls at your heartstrings with eloquence.  There is nothing trite about Basran’s treatment of the everlasting effects of young love.  Although I do wish there would have been more severe judgment on the drowning of a girl’s voice and goals in present-day Canada.

I found it very difficult to relate to Meena’s mother, aunts and older sisters because of their compliance with cultural expectations.  I wrote about the betrayal that women experience throughout this novel at the hands of other women recently.  Upon finishing the novel, I realize that though I still feel this way, these characters really do the best they can in the context of their lives.  The women in this novel do (for the most part) create a network of support in time of (severe) need.  Mostly, however, they are of the belief that it is a woman’s role to make do, to accept, to conform in order for family life to persevere.

The men in this novel are easy to dislike.  Fathers who spoil sons and ignore daughters.  A father-in-law who understands the plight of his son’s wife, yet remains silent in his wife’s verbal berrating of her.  Young men who are bribed into marriage with hefty sums because it is time to settle down, all the while, they love another, yet they do not challenge parental expectations because they’ll lose all that money.  Men who physically and emotionally abuse their wives.  It is a patriarchal culture – no doubt about it.  Women survive and men thrive and no one does a thing about it.  I was appalled by the behaviour of most of the male characters in this novel, and had to keep reminding myself that this is a culture that is unknown to me…stop judging with Western beliefs.

Although Everything Was Goodbye is about a Punjabi community in British Columbia, many of its themes and characters are universal. There are so many questions raised about relationships and what we owe one another.  Basran does not attempt to address these issues, but does show the depth of pain we can create in each other – and, the consequences of that pain.

What was your reaction to this novel and its characters? Have you read other novels that have given you insight into another culture?

**spoiler alert** I will discuss the novel’s conclusion here:

I cannot believe the way this novel ends.  I was flabbergasted, speechless, left morose and just as lost as Meena.  Finally, finally, the life she wanted and deserved was within her grasp.  She was living with the man she truly loved, they had a beautiful baby girl and she was almost divorced from Sunny Gill her arrogant (product of his environment) jerk of a husband.  And then, it is all taken away!?!  I read somewhere that this novel was a modern day Romeo and Juliet – I see that and I am just so mad that it had to end the way it did.

I felt like Basran really didn’t give Meena any firm resolution.  She was just as aimless, lifeless as she was before – moreso with Liam’s loss.  Only Leena, their daughter, keeps her going.  But, once again, it is a role that keeps her alive.  She was once daughter, then wife and now mother.  Is it only in her role that Meena values herself?  I don’t understand it.  I still grapple with Basran’s choice…which is why I think this is such a great novel.  The author challenges us at every level.  It is not easy to let go of these characters and the sadness in which one leaves them.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Everything Was Goodbye.  Basran writes clearly, passionately and provides an explosive conclusion.  If you enjoy novels that offer insight into humanity, relationships, and other cultures, you will enjoy Everything Was Goodbye.  I highly recommend this novel.

What did you think of the novel’s conclusion?  How did you feel when the final tragedy was unravelled?  Would you recommend Everything Was Goodbye?