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Secret Daughter: A Novel

A book by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

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An extraordinary debut novel from a Canadian author!

  • Jan 17, 2011
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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More Secret Daughter: A Novel reviews
Quick Tip by . January 17, 2011
An extraordinary debut novel from a Canadian author that tells the heartbreaking story of Usha, rescued by her mother from certain death at the hands of her father for no reason other than not being the son he so desperately wanted, and adopted by a childless couple in California.
review by . May 20, 2010
Shilpi Somaya Gowda's first book is excellent. I'm already looking forward to her second.    Her writing is rich and descriptive and beautiful -- yet not overly flowery at all.     SECRET DAUGHTER is a lovely story that takes us to two countries -- U.S. (San Francisco) and India -- and spans 25 years. We meet Kavita and Jasu who are living in a small Indian village. Girl babies are expensive (their dowries later) and can't help with the farming, so they are …
review by . March 27, 2010
When Somer and Krishnan meet and marry while after medical school in San Francisco, their future looks bright. They are in love, and they are both destined for successful medical careers. When they make the decision to start a family, everything seems to be falling into place for the couple. When the miscarriages begin, the relationship between the young couple becomes strained; and when Somer's physician confirms that she is actually premenopausal, it becomes very clear that their plans of having …
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Paul Weiss ()
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   A modern day dilettante with widely varied eclectic interests. A dabbler in muchbut grandmaster of none - wilderness camping in all four seasons, hiking, canoeing, world travel,philately, … more
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About this book


On the eve of the monsoons, in a remote Indian village, Kavita gives birth to Usha. But in a culture that favours 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 baby Asha from a Mumbai orphanage, they are overwhelmed with emotion for her. 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 Asha, "Secret Daughter" poignantly explores issues of culture and belonging. Moving between two worlds and two families, one struggling to survive in the fetid slums of Mumbai, the other grappling to forge a cohesive family despite their diverging cultural identities, this powerful debut novel marks the arrival of a fresh talent poised for great success.
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ISBN-10: 0061974307
ISBN-13: 978-0061974304
Publisher: HarperCollins

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