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Secret Daughter: A Novel
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168 of 171 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This beautifully written book, Secret Daughter: A Novel, is one that will linger in my thoughts for a long time. It's a poignant story about family -- just who is "family" and what it means to be a part of one. It's also a brilliantly written testimony to mothers everywhere, for "if the mother falls, the whole family falls."

Asha (Hope) was secretly named Usha (Dawn) by her birth mother, Kavita, and is adopted from an Indian orphanage by a married American couple when she is just a year old. Kavita, already grieving the infanticide of a previous daughter in a society that prefers male infants, had made the long journey to Shanti to deliver her 3-day-old child there for safety so that her husband and his family would not also destroy this second unwanted female child. She left her daughter with only a thin silver bracelet and a wish that Asha be allowed to live, grow up, and perhaps have a better life.

Somer and Krishnan Thakkar, both doctors -- she's a pediatrician and he's a neurosurgeon -- have been unable to have a child. He is Indian and came to America to attend medical school and stayed for a better life. She married him without fully appreciating the Indian heritage and his connection to the land of his birth and to the family and traditions he left behind there. When they adopt Asha and bring her back to America to raise, little do they realize that their new beloved daughter will one day defy her parents and seek to restore their connection to their Indian relatives despite the fact that she may hurt them when she begins to trace her birth parents to find out who she is and why they gave her up for adoption.

The story moves forward in time from 1984 to 2009, and is told from the viewpoints of the three main females of the story - Somer, Kavita, and Asha. All are women who have a very strong feeling about motherhood -- and about their own mothers. In addition, each woman sees a different India and comes to appreciate the country in different ways even as they realize that "Mother India does not love all her children equally."

The story of each woman's journey to epiphany and self-realization is very moving and satisfying. I highly recommend this book.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on January 16, 2011
Format: Paperback
SECRET DAUGHTER tells two heartbreaking stories, worlds apart but inseparably linked. The first is about infertility in North American woman and the extreme lengths that some hopeful mothers- and fathers-to-be will take to achieve the elusive goal of parenthood. The second graphically illustrates the demeaning treatment of women and girls in India combined with the overpowering social pressure that Indian women feel to bear sons. A common beginning breaks into two tales and then finds common ground once again at the conclusion of Shilpi Somaya Gowda's brilliant debut novel.

Kavita Merchant, having had her first child heartlessly ripped away from her and simply "disposed of" in the manner of an unwanted chattel, defies her family, her husband and her culture's social mores to spirit her second child, Usha, into an orphanage. All that Kavita can bequeath to her daughter is a small silver bangle and life itself. Separated by two oceans, thousands of miles and an entire universe of cultural differences, Somer and Krishnan Thakkar, both successful doctors in North America are struggling with Somer's inability to conceive and carry a baby to full term. All attempts at producing their own child having failed, they reluctantly decide, in homage to Krishnan's ethnicity and his family, to adopt an Indian child from an orphanage in Mumbai. SECRET DAUGHTER is the story of two families and the life of the daughter who was given the gift of a chance at a life that nobody but her mother wanted her to have.

Although Gowda's concerns and dismay over the Indian culture's preferential treatment for sons is clear enough, she does not (thankfully) indulge in heavy-handed proselytizing or hand-wringing. The story is quite shocking, compelling, absorbing and heartbreaking enough even when it is told in a relatively factual, straightforward, almost banal manner. Indeed, the effect on North American sensibilities may be more powerful and poignant for Gowda's presentation of the practice of killing unwanted daughters as simply the way it is. I'll confess to my western confusion over the matriarchs of Indian families who seem to have the bizarre ability to forget or ignore the fact that, at one point in their lives, they too were baby girls who were probably, at best, unwelcome additions to their families.

Some readers will almost certainly be disappointed at the lack of closure that the finale of the story brings to all of its characters. For my money, this open-ended conclusion keeps SECRET DAUGHTER out of the potentiall pitfall of becoming trite or sappy. Life, after all, goes on. Families and cultures are dynamic, evolving things and, as individuals, our life on this earth is all too short. Our individual contributions are only a small part of that development. If we can all agree that the murder of infant Indian girls is unacceptable in a modern world whether it is in India or North America, then I think we can also agree that Shilpi Somaya Gowda, the novel SECRET DAUGHTER and the story of little Usha's life, has made a notable contribution toward that change.

Highly recommended.

Paul Weiss
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78 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I agree with the reviewer who wrote "Good Plot, Weak Characters." The idea of following two families who do not know they are connected, one who places a child for adoption because she is a girl, and one who lives halfway around the world who adopts the girl, is wonderful. Ann Hood did this to some extent in "The Red Thread," but she did not follow the Chinese mothers for the rest of their lives, as Shilpa Gowda follows Kavita. Kavita is married to Jasu, who had their first-born daughter killed. They can only afford one child, and he will do anything for a son. When Kavita produces yet another girl child, she runs away from her small village to an orphanage in Mumbai, to leave the wrong-gendered infant and spare her the fate of her older sister. Meanwhile, we meet Somer (American, Caucasian, Protestant) and Krishnan (Indian, Hindu), a young married couple living in California whose efforts to give birth have produced nothing but grief. They travel to India to adopt the little girl that Kavita placed in the orphanage, whom they call Asha (Hope).

(What comes below talks about more of the plot than you may want to know if you plan to read the book.)

It is not clear what attracts Somer and Krishnan to each other in the first place; perhaps Somer is drawn in by the exotic, foreign Krishnan, so different than anything else in her otherwise plain vanilla life. Somer has little if any interest in Krishnan's culture, so unless Krishnan is trying to escape all memories of India (and there is nothing that indicates this), it is hard to see what attracts him to Somer (yes she is bright and attractive, but can someone really love another person who has no interest in his native land/culture?). The adoption and raising of Asha hold this couple together, but when Asha leaves the nest for college and a fellowship in India, the cracks in the marriage show all too clearly.

Meanwhile, Kavita gives birth to the long-dreamed of son, Vijoy (Victory). The family's move from village to city (Mumbai, naturally) proves economically sound, but plays havoc with the traditional family bonds, as Vijoy is influenced more by friends than family, and grows up to be a drug dealer. Why his parents take his ill-gotten money when they know what he is doing is not clear to me, as Kavita is portrayed as a long-suffering saint and Jasu slowly reveals that, despite having his first child killed, he has (almost) a heart of gold.

Growing up, Asha has shown some curiousity about her birth family and birth culture This section of the book needs considerably more substance if we are to believe that Asha travels to India to stay with her father's relatives whom she does not know and winds up wholeheartedly embracing the family (and vica versa) and the culture, and of course, finding love (while writing prize-winning articles to boot). She also searches for her birth family, which is totally believable, but the resolution is wishy-washy.

One gaping omission is the role of the caste system in the life of Indian society. Does caste really play NO role in this story? How can that possibly be? Why is it never mentioned when it is so important in Hindu India? Would all of Krishnan's family truly embrace this adopted child, most likely from a lower caste than they? Would Asha really be given such an honored role at her grandfather's funeral? Is the author saying that caste is meaningless in India, or does she just wish that were true?

This could have been a very compelling story about cross-cultural and transracial adoption if it had examined more thoroughly and realistically each member of the adoption triad and the cultures that they came from.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda was such a great read for me! It'll be making my favorites list for this year. I'm already quite fond of novels that take me away to another place and culture and Secret Daughter does just that. This is a powerful novel that delves deeply into culture, motherhood, and a person's identity; it is both heartbreaking and uplifting.

The novel shifts between two compelling story lines, one taking place in India and one in America. The year is 1984 and a baby girl is born to Kavita in a small village in India. Her first daughter had been taken away by her husband's family and killed. She was not going to have that happen to this one. Instead she takes her daughter to an orphanage in the hopes that she will have a better life or at the very least, a chance at one. She names her Usha which means dawn and leaves with her one silver bangle that she slips on Usha's ankle.

A world away doctors, Somer and Krishnan, have been trying to have a child. Unfortunately it turns out that Somer is unable to have children having gone into early menopause in her thirties. She is devastated and feels betrayed by her body. Krishnan tells her that they have other options. His mother has been telling him about an orphanage in Bombay and all the children that need adopting there. As Krishnan is from India, he feels that this would be a good match for them. At first Somer is hesitant but eventually she agrees to adopt from India. They travel to India and eventually bring home their baby who is named Asha, but was born Usha.

As the story evolves we see life from both sides. We see the agony that Kavita goes through having had to give up her daughter even though she knows it was for the best - she just wishes she knew for sure what would become of her daughter. Jasu, her husband moves them to Mumbai in the hopes of giving a better life for their son Vijay who they had the year after Usha. Life doesn't go well for them in the beginning; there are many hardships to endure, but eventually things turn around for them and life gets better. Surprisingly for how much I disliked Jasu for not wanting daughters I thought that ultimately he ended up being a good husband and really did love Kavita. No matter what was going on in their lives, whether good or bad, Kavita could not ever forget the baby girl she had to give up.

Somer and Krishnan are having their own struggles. Well Somer is anyhow. Much of the time she really feels out of place in her own family. Asha and Krishnan have their heritage in common but she has never really been that interested in learning much about Krishnan's culture. As well she really tries to steer Asha towards life in America, clearly forgetting that the girl needs to learn about her own culture. Asha really wants to learn about her culture and meet her relatives in India - so much so that she ends up getting a grant to go to India and write a story about the underprivileged there.

So begins Asha's search for her birth parents and her delight in meeting this family that aren't even her blood relatives but take her in and love her like one of their own. Back in America Somer and Krishnan have separated and this is just what Somer needs to get her life back. She realizes that along the way she gave up her identity and herself for her family and all she really succeeded in doing was taking away that piece of herself that made her so special. As she begins to like herself again she learns that sometimes love means compromising yourself even when it's not really what you wanted to do.

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda is a fantastic novel! It is emotional and powerful. The author writes beautifully and her descriptions of India, the food, and the culture are amazing. I felt I was right there within the pages of this story tasting the spicy food or picking out a sari to wear. I can't even pick out a favorite character because this is one of those books in which you feel drawn to all of them. I did however feel more drawn to the story line in India but only because I loved to read about a culture that is so different from my own. There are some parts of the book that I found upsetting like what happens to baby girls and just how women are treated in general but that is part of India and the story. If you enjoy novels that enable you to learn about another culture while reading a story that will tug on your heart then Secret Daughter is one you should pick up!
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
I had breakfast with a friend the other morning and she brought this book to me. We swap books and book recommendations, but are fairly careful to only pass along things we really like. If a book is just average, it never gets mentioned. It had been a while since she had brought me anything so I bumped this up at the top of my huge, massive TBR pile and started it last week. On the first day, I read a huge chunk of it since I didn't want to put it down. I am a fan of Jhumpa Lahiri and will pretty much devour anything she writes. After reading this particular novel, Shilpi Samoya Gowda is jumped into that same category (and it's just her debut).

In the opening of the novel we meet Kavita as she is about to give birth in a small village not too far from Bombay and the year is 1984. This is the second child she has born recently and the first was "disposed" of since the child was not a boy. Once the child is born and it's a second girl, Kavita takes matters in her own hands and does what she can to save the child by getting her to an orphanage in Bombay without the father's knowledge. About the same time, another couple in the United States is discovering that the miscarriages and failing fertility treatments may mean no biological child for them but what about adoption. Since the husband of the couple is originally from India, would it be possible to adopt a child from there? These two stories are interwoven and these two families are the basis of this incredible novel. One that grabs you early and just never lets go. By the end of the novel, twenty years have passed and the fate of all concerned is known.

As I said at the beginning, this was an absolute joy to read and a second novel by this same author will be snatched up quickly by me. Another reading friend of mine asked me within the past couple of days what have been my favorite reads in the last several months. I gave her a list of five books that stood out above everything else and this one was on that very short list. Absolutely great!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
Shilpi Somaya Gowda writes a novel with two separate, parallel stories tied together by an adopted child. She beautifully developed the story about the Indian mother who gave her daughter up for adoption. Gowda did a phenomenal job developing the Indian characters and skillfully described their struggles in rural India and Mumbai. She brought to life the struggles of underprivileged Indian families, families that immigrate from rural to urban Indian cities, the preference for male babies, and the hardships of Indian women.

Gowda fell short in the development of the American story, which included the stories of the adopted daughter and her parents. She began the novel by describing the adopting mother's struggle with infertility; however, she drops this storyline after adoption of the child. At one point in the novel, the adopting mother and father separate. The couple reunites after the mother finds a lump in her breast. I found this storyline to be contrived. Furthermore, the adopted daughter spends one year during college in India so that she can write a story about poverty, but Gowda only mentions two days of interviews conducted by the daughter with people who lived in the Indian slums. Gowda does a beautiful job describing Indian society, so I was disappointed that she did not examine this storyline further.

Despite the shortcomings of the American storylines, I enjoyed the Indian part of the novel so much that I finished the novel in less than two days. I recommend this book.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2012
Format: Paperback
Every mom who has teenage daughters will see a bit of themselves in the moms who are portrayed in this story. The book is very well written, I could put myself in the scenes that were being described. I could see friends, I could see a bit of my own children...additionally, I could relate easily to the middle aged mom's point of view - being on the path to self discovery after being a wife, mom, for 20 years and finding herself in transition. One of the things I liked best is that the author did not have to take the reader to places I didn't want to go...it was "real" without having to add explicit content - IMHO, THAT is the mark of a true author. Well worth the purchase price, well worth the read.
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18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on March 2, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This was an interesting story, but I wouldn't say it was well written. There are two or more stories told in this book. The story of the impoverished couple in India was interesting and pretty well written. The characters were pretty well developed. The descriptions of India were very good, and realistic, including the slums of Mumbai. I have been to Mumbai, and traveled around India, and it brought back memories for me.

The part of the story involving the U.S. family, and their relatives in India, was much weaker. The writing was particularly sophomoric, as though it had been written for an adult ed, or high school creative writing class. Most of the characters were so one-dimensional and shallow. The character Somer was just irksome. So whiny. I certainly didn't feel or share the experience of her emotions. I have experienced infertility and miscarriage, which is horrible. I married a Stanford grad and lived in the Bay Area. I thought I would be able to relate. But her story often read with the depth and soul of a Harlequin Romance. Here is a description of her miscarriage:

"The medical journal drops from Somer's hand and she clutches her abdomen. She rises from the couch and stumbles toward the bathroom, supporting herself down the long corridor of the Victorian flat." ... "She sees the bright red blood dripping down the pale skin of her thigh. "No. Oh god, please no." Her plea is soft but urgent." ... "It does not. She puts her face in her hands, and the tears come."

Really? The tears come? Wow, that clutches at me emotionally ... not! A bit melodramatic, yes. Dramatic? No.

The Somer character is just not believable. OK, she is a very bright, Stanford educated doctor. Raised in California. Marries an Indian. Adopts an Indian baby. And yet she takes zero interest in embracing anything Indian. She takes no interest in the culture, the food, the clothing, her relatives. When she visits India she gets stupidly confused over the most simple cultural differences. She feels out of sorts with her husbands' family (who are perfectly kind and gracious). Good grief. Is she just a dim-wit? No, she is a bright, Stanford med school graduate. Wait, what?

I would guess the author felt particularly close to the Indian part of the story, but tried to fake it through the U.S. part of the story. When the adopted daughter from the U.S. visited India, it just became tiresome. She was just so "perfect". Her Indian family was so "perfect" and accepted this adopted daughter/girl so "perfectly". Ugh. Very shallow.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 17, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Secret Daughter is a sprawling novel, spanning 25 years in the lives of two families. The Merchants are an impoverished family living in India. The Thakkars are a wealthy family living in San Francisco. These two families' lives intersect in an unlikely way - they share a daughter. The Merchants are too poor to afford a daughter (and her future dowry) so Kavita Merchant, the illiterate wife of Jasu, decides to clandestinely bring her newborn daughter Usha to a Bombay orphanage in order to save the baby's life from infanticide. Somer and Krishnan Thakkar are both Stanford educated doctors who seem to have everything except fertility. Indian-born Krishnan convinces his American wife Somer to adopt a baby from an Indian orphanage after the couple receives devastating news that Somer will never be able to have biological children. The Thakkars adopt Usha - renamed Asha by the orphanage - and give her a privileged life in America. Meanwhile, the Merchants struggle in India to better themselves, despite their rural origins, illiteracy, and poverty. As the years pass, Asha struggles with her identity, having been shielded from India and often wondering where she gets her unusual eyes. She feels that her family does not understand her and wonders if it is because they are not biologically related. Ultimately Asha travels to India on scholarship while the lives of the Thakkars and Merchants unravel and the parents - Kavita and Jasu Merchant and Somer and Krishnan Thakkar - seek self-awareness as they reach middle age and their children become adults.

The novel covers many themes, most particularly infertility, intercultural marriage, poverty, the "two Indias" (i.e. the rich India of the Thakkars and the poor India of the Merchants), and adoption. What distinguishes this novel from others, I think, is Asha's perspective - that of an adoptee into a wealthy Indian family who discovers that she was very lucky to have been adopted.

I thought the best part of Secret Daughter was the second half, when Asha travels to India. I could very much relate to Asha's perspective of India, having spent several months living in Bombay. I remember encountering many of the same things she did and I thought the perspective of the long-term outsider was dead on. The novel was thought provoking - while I sympathized with Kavita for having to give up her daughter, it was hard not to feel that Asha was much better off with the Thakkars. Fortunately, the novel did a good job of pointing out that Asha was also lucky compared to the other children in the orphanage, as most find themselves on the streets at 16 with little to no prospects for the future.

In sum, Secret Daughter was a good read. It is a good addition to the growing genre of ABCD (American Born, Confused Desi) fiction.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
I really wanted to like this book and I can see I'm in a small minority in giving it only three stars. It was a very well written story, for the most part, with a very compelling subject matter (one that has always interested me) and a very satisfying ending. But I did have several problems with it that prevents me from reviewing it highly.

I found the first maybe two thirds of the novel difficult to get through, because it just seemed to be an endless list of misery after misery. This does make it a little hard to root for the characters, especially since most of the misery seems to be self-generated. The author tells us that Kris and Somer were once happy together, but all we really see of their relationship is resentment and distance and a shocking inability for either one of them to even attempt to understand one another. Somer seems completely unwilling to embrace Kris's Indian culture or to understand why he wants to have anything to do with it. She won't even do him the small kindness of learning to cook a few Indian dishes. Kris, on the other hand, doesn't seem to understand why Somer feels so uncomfortable in India, and he doesn't take a single step to help her acclimate or to show her any of the positive aspects of his country. Even after the adoption, everyone seems miserable. Later in the book we are told how much Somer loves Asha, her adopted daughter. But all we are ever shown prior to that point is her resentment, her feelings of being an outsider in her own family, and her unwillingness to understand why Asha is interested in knowing something--anything--about her birth parents, and, yes, her regret at ever having adopted in the first place.

The parallel story of Asha's birth parents is almost more difficult to swallow, though I give it the benefit of the doubt because I am not Indian and the only Indians I've ever known are those who emigrated to America from privileged Indian families. But after Kavita's husband Jasu murders their first child, I can't believe that she would forgive him as quickly as she does. Although that may just be a part of the culture, I don't know. But I can't ever like Jasu again through the whole story and that makes it hard for me to relate to their family, even considering all the terrible things that happen to them after that.

There seem to be two themes going on in this book. In the first, I think the author wants us to see the "two Indias:" the horrible poverty that Kavita's family has to endure and the lavish lifestyle of Kris's upper class family. The second is a family theme: "At some point the family you create is more important than the one you're born into." So in wanting to convey these two themes, I'm not sure there's anything the author could have done about my last gripe, and that is that I think she ignored one of the fundamental realities of Indian adoption: the caste system. Now, please someone correct me if I'm wrong but I've read that adoption is problematic within Indian families because the caste system is still very much alive and well; once you're born into a caste, there's nothing you can do to get out of it ... which is why higher-caste families don't like to adopt if they have no way of knowing which caste the adopted baby came from. So I really doubt that Kris's traditional mother would be so accepting of his decision to adopt a baby, who obviously was from a different caste though I don't think anyone would have been able to discover which one. But the subject is never brought up and Asha's grandmother accepts her just as if she was a biological grandchild--which obviously is the way it should be, although sadly I don't think this is usually a reality in India. Perhaps Kris's family is just very modern? Still, I don't think the issue should have been completely ignored, even though it would have made the novel's themes difficult to maintain.

The story did redeem itself at the end. Asha proved to be a very likeable character (though I did have a hard time believing she could have located her birth parents so quickly and easily in a country of one billion people). And the ending of the novel, which I won't give away, was very sweet and satisfying. Still, I don't think it was enough to overcome the other complaints I had about the story.
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Secret Daughter Publisher: William Morrow
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