BOOK REVIEW: The House Girl, Secret Daughter

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Just in case April’s traditionally mixed weather keeps us from the garden, the golf course and other outdoor activities that signal the emergence of spring it is good to have a few sure bet books on hand to get through the grey days.

The House Girl (Harper Collins, $22.99) by a young American lawyer turned writer, Tara Conklin, is an engaging story of identity and social justice. The main character, Lina Sparrow, is an ambitious first-year associate at an elite New York City law firm and the daughter of a renowned artist. Lina is handed a dream case in which she must discover the perfect plaintiff to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for the descendents of American slaves.

The law firm functions in stereotypical cut-throat fashion but against this predictable high-stress background unfolds a story of the plantation-era American south in which painter LuAnne Bell lived with her house slave, Jospehine. Bell’s iconic paintings are historically important and increasingly valuable but an art critic rocks the art world by asserting the paintings are actually the work of her slave, Josephine.

House Girl is a story of two repressed young women, Lina the young lawyer who is free to leave her father’s house but feels emotionally compelled to stay and Josephine who had no freedom at all yet mustered the courage leave her mistress’ house.  The latter is by far the more interesting but it is through Josephine that Lina emerges with a clearer understanding of her own circumstances and the courage to face what has been hidden from her.

If you happened to miss The Secret Daughter (Harper Collins, $19.99) when it came out two years ago you missed a good book. Written by Shilpi Somaya Gowda, raised in Toronto by Indian parents, it is the searing story of a rural Indian woman who saves her daughter by giving her up for adoption. In an economically poor culture where sons are favored it is Kavita’s only choice but her courageous decision haunts her while her husband deals with his own guilt.

Halfway around the globe Somer, an American pediatrician, grapples with a diagnosis of infertility. When she and her Indian-born husband Krishnan, also a medical specialist, see a photo of a baby in a Mumbai orphanage they want her desperately.  They marry believing their differences count for little but as life continues their different backgrounds and visions for their daughter slowly begin to tear them apart. Meanwhile Kavita, determined to provide opportunities for the son she finally delivers leaves her family in the countryside and moves with her husband to Mumbai. Life in the slums demands courage and constancy and Kavita wonders why the daily struggle seems to create even greater distance with the son who was expected to bring such joy.

Secret Daughter is a story rich in Indian culture and traditions but it is equally adept at portraying the anguish of a North American mother and her stifling fear that India will take her daughter from her. The natural mother Kavita, the adoptive mother Somer, the daughter Asha and the Indian grandmother, Dadima are such wonderfully crafted and emotive characters it is only in retrospect you notice Krishnan is barely more than a caricature. The only explanation seems to be that Gowda chose to make Secret Daughter entirely a woman’s story.

Gowda’s novel was inspired by a summer she spent working in a Mumbai orphanage.

Organizations: House Girl, North American

Geographic location: New York City, Mumbai, Toronto India

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