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on January 12, 2011
Although many of the reviews have been largely focused on the cultural aspects of the story - which are pivotal and make for a compelling narrative - the search for one's biological roots and its impact on both sides of the adoptee's family are also important. Location and culture notwithstanding, adopted children are frequently driven to seek their hidden histories, and adoptive parents must confront this reality with varied reactions but seldom without some reservations.

The whole concept of having borne and then concealed a child is hardly new. Many older North American birth mothers have their own "secret daughters (or sons)", having been forced into silence and denial by a society that once viewed illegitimacy as shameful and extramarital pregnancy as an aberration. Many children of the 1930s through early 1960s in particular, even in the supposedly enlightened West, are still bound to a past without answers. And their adoptive parents may have viewed a child's desire to find such answers with great uneasiness, if not outright dread. This still occurs within the contemporary adoption community. Somer embodies the concerns of many adoptive mothers, although I don't feel she is given enough scope to develop as a character and her Indian-American husband, Krishnan, receives even less opportunity. But several issues are raised nonetheless. There's the fear of losing one's child to strangers who have a greater genetic claim on her/him. There's also the anxiety that the reunion might turn out to be immensely painful for a well-loved daughter or son. And there's the feeling that no matter what efforts an adoptive parent may have made to ensure the child's happy progress through youth and adolescence, they are never going to be quite enough.

If the book has a noticeable flaw, it is that Somer's side of the story is given less space and focus. She has been dealt a rough hand owing to infertility, although this theme is but lightly touched-on. Her internal conflicts as an adoptive mom aren't explored in any depth. She has done everything possible to give Asha a positive experience as the child grows up. Yet her role in the narrative is secondary to Kavita's. The scales are rather weighted on the side of the birth family and their situation. And the women on both sides are emphasized; the men aren't portrayed in nearly as much depth. We don't get to know them very well.

From the point-of-view of Asha herself, there's the conviction that Somer simply can't understand her. The mirror is a continual reminder of the physical differences between daughter and mother. And she is aware of a nagging sense that parental needs trump the wishes of the child when it comes to wrestling with the past and confronting destiny. Both sides view each other through a veil of partial illusion. I find this to be a fairly realistic depiction of the dilemma that faces many young-adult adoptees and their families. No search for resolution comes without risk.

Personally, I'm both an adoptee and an adoptive mom. When I first began to read the book, I was hesitant because I anticipated the usual cliches that attend many stories of adoption, search and reunion. I've read very, very few convincing and believable novels in which adoption is a central theme. But I quickly became absorbed in this situation and sympathetic to most of Gowda's characters, despite the imbalance in favor of the Indian family - which is frequently made to sound like the "real" family. There can be a certain danger in making such an assumption.

The author's tone is empathetic but unsentimental, owing in part to the third-person narration. She never descends into maudlin territory. Although not all characters are equally drawn, both flaws and strengths are suggested as marriage and parenting relationships are explored. There are no excesses of pity and there is no judgment. The plot is mostly believable (although it is convenient that the adoptive family has sufficient money to allow for easy international travel - many adoptive parents are far less affluent - and also that the process of tracking down the birth family seems much quicker and simpler than one might expect). There is never any doubt that Asha will be able to reconnect with her blood relatives. Given the vast population of India, this is a bit of a stretch. Within the tiny confines of Nova Scotia, it took me 49 years to accomplish the same thing!

But this is not an entirely predictable story. It is especially noteworthy as a vehicle for cross-cultural examination and contrast. Several characters are immensely likable and memorable; my favorite is Dadima, who acts as an in-house guide not only for Asha but also for the reader. Others such as Vijay are less accessible. In the end, I am left with the feeling that, as in real life, more stories are waiting to be told. I, too, would enjoy a sequel that follows other members of these families - especially Vijay - as I came to care and wonder about them. I was sorry to finish the last page.
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on April 25, 2011
A lovely book. While I had a hard time warming up to the characters in the first section, they quickly transformed into rounded, interesting people. This story is narrated by multiple characters (one per chapter), which I appreciated, as it allowed us to feel and see each player's perspective. As a result, what could have been a flat story about an American family's seemingly mundane, over-exaggerated "struggles" versus an Indian family's real, concerning, and epic bid to survive was actually a complex tale about family, perspective, how we value what we have, and the difference between success and failure. I would suggest this book to readers interested in family stories, different cultures, food (there's lots of food in this book, and you'll crave Indian food as you read), and relationships between mothers and daughters.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon March 2, 2016
I seem destined lately to read books that tell the tale of two people or two families, alternately, back and forth throughout the book. Secret Daughter, a novel, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda is the third story of this type I’ve read in the last couple of months. Each has been a compelling story in its own way; each has had a different style and voice.

Secret Daughter tells the story of a girl born in India and put up for adoption because of poverty and the greater value of a boy. The author follows baby Asha — Hope (although her birth mother named her Usha — Dawn) to California with her adoptive parents: Somer, an American, and Krishnan, an East Indian who came to the U.S. to study to become a doctor. The story also continues to follow Asha’s birth parents: Kavita and Jasu Merchant who lived in a small northern village called Dahanu when Asha was born, but later, moved to Mumbai where there were hoping to have better opportunities for success. The year after Asha was born and given up for adoption, the Merchants were blessed with a boy who they called Vijay — Victory. Vijay was six years old when his family moved to Mumbai.

This is a touching story about cultural differences, feelings of inadequacy, longings to fit in, and the complex problems that accompany adoption when a child is taken away from its culture. Yet the story is one of hope, because as a young adult, Asha learns about family:

"At some point, the family you create is more important than the one you’re born into."(p307)

The three women are the main focus of the story: Asha, her birth mother — Kavita, and her adoptive mother — Somer. Growing up, Asha felt different, that she had a past she knew nothing about. When her grade three teacher asked them to write a letter to someone in another country, Asha wrote to her birth mother. But when she asked her father to mail it, Krishnan tells her he doesn’t know where her mother lives. Asha is confused and often lashes out at Somer; Somer often feels odd man out because she is the only non-Indian in her family. She had desperately wanted a child and when she learned she couldn’t, she and Krishnan opted to adopt a child from India. Somewhere along the way, it had started to fall apart.

Both Krishnan and Somer want Asha to become a doctor like them and push her to excel in math and science. But Asha has other ideas. She wants to be a journalist; she’s terribly excited about journalism and seeking the truth. When she wins a one-year scholarship to do a story about children growing up in the slums of Mumbai, Somer is worried and angry. She realizes Krishnan already knew about this and both husband and daughter had kept it from her. When Asha leaves for Mumbai, she has a second agenda: seeking out her birth parents. Somer feels she has lost touch with everything that was important in her life and decides to move out.
Arriving in Mumbai, Asha discovers her grandparents and many, many aunts, uncles, and cousins who sweep her up into their love. She learns much from early morning walks with her grandmother who encourages her to do what she feels she must. Asha thinks she knows what to expect in India but becomes aware that everything she thought she knew was more complicated than she realized; everything including what she thought she knew about family.

This is very much a story of Asha coming of age, but also about how two families are affected by adoption, and how two cultures that seem to clash are able to mesh and learn from each other. It is also about what the author refers to as “the two Indias”, Dharavi, the enormous shantytown, and the India of Asha’s family where there is space, luxury and servants. But as Asha learns, even in Dharavi there is hope for a future.
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on July 16, 2014
Canadian first-time author Shilpi Somaya Gowda has written a compelling story that had me from the beginning. Born in Toronto, Canada, to parents from Bombay, India, she had insight and good understanding of both cultures. She mostly told the story from the perspective of three women - the adopted daughter, the adoptive mother and the birth mother. It was involved and interesting and hard to put down once I started reading.

I don't want to give away too much and spoil it for you, but for anyone who has adopted from another country, or is thinking about it, this book gives a different view of some of the things to take into consideration.

The characters are well-developed, their life situations are convincing and detailed, and the reader gets to share in the story of their lives over a span of twenty-five years. It was easy to care about them. In fact, I experienced a range of emotions as I read this international bestseller.

I liked how the author headed her chapters with not only the title, but also the location, date, and name of the person the reader was visiting in that chapter. Each chapter is only a few pages long which made it easy to read when having only a few minutes. It also helped the reader get oriented right from the start and occasionally helped the author step over a span of several years to move along in the story. It was well done.

The only thing I did not like is the way the author chose to end this novel, although it is quite believable the way it happened. Obviously the ending did not interfere with the book's success. Even so, if you are one who likes to read the end of a book first ... in this case DON'T! Please, do yourself the favour of not peeking. It is well worth the wait.

There has been criticism that the author ignored or changed some things about the culture of India to fit her story, but I don't agree. In a couple of places I had questions, too, but since I have never studied their culture nor have I visited that country, I accepted that perhaps it was something that is changing there with the times. I believed the author would know that, so I didn't let my lack of information get in the way of a great read.
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on January 3, 2011
I love traveling to India.

I've never been there in the flesh, but frequently visit through literature, and I find its colorful saris, succulent dishes and chaotic streets intriguing, intoxicating. My family knows when I am reading a book set in India - I offer them chai tea in the afternoon, and experiment with new curry dishes for dinner - my sweet potato and lentil dish the other night was particularly good.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda's book, Secret Daughter, shows us two sides of India: primitive villages, where its inhabitants dream of a better life, and the privileged urban upper class who throw elaborate weddings and lead more fanciful lives.

Gowda begins by detailing the chilling treatment of infant girls and women in remote villages, where farming is a priority, and boys and men favored. Our protagonist is Kavita, and readers are quickly seduced by her growing strength and resolve in the face of India's pro-testosterone culture.

We are introduced to the miseries of infertility through the other protagonist, Somer, in San Francisco, as she plummets to the depths of despair because of her inability to conceive.

These women are worlds apart in every way, geographically and culturally, yet their lives and worlds are unlikely brought closer together by the child Kavita risked her life to deliver to the orphanage, very likely saving not only her baby daughter, but also Somer's life in the process.

Filled with courage and hope, the importance of family and love, and shedding light on modern Mumbai, this journey to India is a worthy read.
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on August 3, 2011
I liked the way it is written from the perspective of two different cultures. The way the insecurities of a mother are shown is true and completely understandable. Having experienced both the world's myself, I could relate to the characters many times throughout the story. A very good read.
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on October 23, 2011
One of the best books I have read this year... I loved to learn about the indian culture through a contemporary story. It is a story of belonging. This is the kind of book that makes you travel and forget about your worries. I would suggest it to all my friends.
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on August 9, 2011
Enjoyed this very much. A good story,probably very factual as far as adoptions from foreign countries go. Sympathy goes out to all the characters.There are so many things that make adoptions complicated. The family struggles through and makes things work,sort of!
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on December 18, 2012
Fantastic read! Loved the marrying of 2 cultures and the honestly told by the main character. It's a story about family, loss, adoption and relationships and that they are similar no matter the part of the world.
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on August 28, 2012
A bit slow to start but once you are introduced to all the characters and get the back story the story moves along nicely. The author switches between 5 diffrent characters points of view, 2 countries and seemlessly covers 20 years in their lives. Their is a wonderful symmetry in the stories and beautiful prose throughout. A great story about unconditional love, struggle, family, and most of all our bonds and connections in the most honest way. A great read that can be appreciated by all women.
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