As luck would have it the novels I have lately been given all tend to have some infertility, loss or adoption theme. Happenstance, or some greater design, I am not so sure. Perhaps more people are exploring these themes through fiction. Sima’s Undergarments for Women is a really moving story of a childless woman who runs a bra and panty store in the basement of her home in Brooklyn. Sima is an expert on lingerie. Nobody else can merely look at the customer coming through her door and tell immediately, almost always without fail, exactly what size and style, cup and width is needed for support. Sima’s store is a mirror of the community she lives in, a female hangout and place of bonding. She is an entrepreneur in her 60s seemingly content with her life and business until a young beautiful Isreali named Timna comes to her store looking for a bra and leaves with a job as seamstress. The closer they work together the greater the promise she sees in the young, carefree version of herself and soon Sima is casting herself in the role of surrogate mother to the young displaced woman. This eventually becomes the source of conflict as Timna grows to resent Sima who has trouble accepting boundaries. Ilana Stanger-Ross is an interesting author and a practicing midwife now living in British Columbia. She has received several prizes for her work including the Timothy Findley Fellowship. She writes authentic and heart-wrenching scenes that revolve around infertility. Sima carries most of the burden of this alone, seeking treatment and consulting doctors earlier on in their marriage, her husband a distant observor of her pain and stoicism. Stanger-Ross pushes the envelope here when she is exploring the ways in which a married couple can lapse into moments of over familiarity, and even emotional cruelty. Lev is the cuckholded husband who seems to take everything Sima can dish out and more until he is finally forced to stand up and call her out when she crosses the line in a brutally harsh scene where wife tries to make husband into her dressmaker’s dummy for lingerie. This is a book that is filled with rich metaphors and I love a good metaphor. She has built a career selling something very intimate and yet her life is completely devoid of intimacy. Sima’s store is in the basement of her home, for instance, the foundation upon which her world sits. She sells foundation garments. Just as a good bra gives support physically to a woman’s breasts, Sima’s shop is a central community hub for women seeking support.
Sima’s Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stanger-Ross, Penguin Canada, 2009, paperback 2010. $15.00 U.S and $18.50 Canada. This novel gets $$$$ out of $$$$$.
I was not compensated for this review, but received a copy of the book from the publisher, as is common practice in media.
One of the loveliest expressions of the multi-faceted nature of adoption, Secret Daughter, blew me away with its authenticity and its incredible, strong, three-dimensional female characters. Secret Daughter is an emotionally resonating fictional story of three women who will stay with you long after you finish the book. Kavita, the Indian birth mother, tragically suffers through the birth of two daughters she is never allowed to keep in a poor country that values only boy children for what they can contribute to the family and economy. Somer is a married American doctor who will seek to adopt her child from her husband’s home of India, a girl child from an orphanage where her mother-in-law is well known as a volunteer and patron. Asha is that child. Indian born, raised in America, living a life of privilege, and yet she is never really able to discuss or truly access information or feelings about her adoption until she is nearly an adult. The story begins with Kavita giving birth in Dahanu, India 1984. She has a daughter and recalls in flashback the first daughter she gave birth to: “Kavita spent the next two days curled up on the woven straw mat on the floor of the hut. She did not dare ask what had happened to her baby. Whether she was drowned, suffocated or simply left to starve, Kavita hoped only that death came quickly, mercifully. …Like so many baby girls her first born would be returned to the earth long before her time.” When she realizes she has given birth to a second daughter about to face the same fate, she summons an amazing resource of courage and strength and walks miles with her sister to an orphanage where baby girls are left. She risks being beaten by her drunken husband, or worse by strangers to deliver this girl child to safety. Somer is an American doctor married to Krishnan, an Indian student who emigrated to the U.S to study at medical school and remained as a citizen in California. Krishnan maintains strong ties to family in India. Secret Daughter is told in the third person omniscent narrative style, but it is the alternating tale of the two women, adoptive mother and birth mother that makes this novel one of the best I have read in years. A brilliant juxtaposition of birth mother suffering a loss, quickly moves to another mother seeking to become one, Somer, suffering a devastating miscarriage – again. As Somer lies in hospital she thinks of her losses: “They don’t understand it’s not just the baby she lost. It’s everything. The names she runs through as she lies in bed at night. The paint samples for the nursery she’s collected in her desk drawer.” It seems logical when Somer and Krishnan turn to his home of India with the idea of adopting internationally. Somer, a strong independent American woman, is infuriated and quickly made to feel the outsider when she, a Caucasian female stands with her husband united in their desire and intent to create a family. It is at the orphanage and through the various hoops that a male bureaucracy sets up for foreign adoption that Somer feels the first pangs of something akin to culture shock. It is she, an adoptive mother whose skin differs from her child, who will oddly be made to feel time and again throughout her life as if she does not fit, or is less than a biological parent. Many times over the coming years Somer will be mistaken for the nanny. Her physical and personality differences make her an outsider. Similarly Asha feels herself an oddity, an only child raised in a family of doctors, for whom it is an assumed career path. Never really knowing details of her biological parent’s story, Asha imagines all kinds of stories and makes them her own, until it is no longer enough to fantasize her adoption story. Secret Daughter is such a real and raw story of adoption, it will make you laugh and cry and you won’t be able to put it down and it will also help you, no matter where you are or who you are understand adoption better. As an adoptive parent I was truly amazed every time one of the characters spoke such a true feeling or phrase that I have heard repeatedly, either in my own home, or from the many wonderful friends of ours who also have formed their families through adoption. There comes a point in this story where the mother and daughter discussions are so heated that it literally gives the reader great pause and takes your breath away. Asha, in her teens blurts how Somer and Krishnan are not “her real parents. Everyone else knows where they come from, but I have no idea. I don’t know why I have these eyes that everybody always notices. I don’t know how to deal with this damn hair of mine.” Asha, raised without details of her adoption and made to feel that it was not a topic she might discuss in her home for fear of hurt feelings, eventually explodes. Things are said by everyone, adoptive mother included that sever relationships and do almost irreparable damage. Also not knowing the truth of the relinquishment story and the sacrifices made by Kavita, Somer herself makes horrible assumptions and in the process hurts her daughter and her marriage. “Her mother’s voice drops to a hoarse whisper. ‘At least I wanted you.'” Secret Daughter is simply one of the best books I’ve read in years. I did not receive this one from a publisher for review, I bought it myself and had to share it with my readers because it is so magnificent and there are so many lessons to be learned here throughout this adoption story. Shilpi Somaya Gowda was raised in Toronto and has lived many places. Her parents emigrated from Mumbai. She has an MBA and now lives in California with her children and husband. Perhaps most telling of why this story is so authentic, is the fact that she spent a summer volunteering at an Indian orphnage. I look forward to more from this author. This book would make a fantastic Christmas gift for the readers on your list. To purchase Secret Daughter click on my Amazon.ca carousel widget at side of page. Affiliate links and ads help fund this blog.
Thriftymommastips $$$$$ out of $$$$$. (5 out of 5: my highest rating)
Secret Daughter, first edition paperback, William Morrow, a division of Harper Collins, 2010, $17.99 U.S. 340 pages plus helpful glossary at end of Indian words