I’m mystified that this novel by Shanthi Sekaram hasn’t gotten more attention. It’s a compelling read about complex subjects that are very much of the moment. I suppose some could argue that its style is too simplistic and the story too melodramatic and unlikely (and, indeed, that seems to be a common argument in the Tournament of Books’ forum on Goodreads). But, for me, the book works, not necessarily as a great work of literary art, but as a book that I had a hard time putting down and was eager to get back to every time. I suppose my tastes are just unsophisticated.
The novel follows two women: Solimar, an 18-year-old from Mexico who wants to come of America, and Kavya, an Indian-American chef in her 30s who’s ready to have a baby. In alternating chapters, we watch Soli face the terrors of an illegal border crossing as Kavya and her husband, Rishi, face their infertility and start considering adoption. When Solimar finally makes it to Berkeley, California, and discovers she’s pregnant, it’s obvious that these stories will merge, but it takes a long time for it to happen.
Both of these women are easy to sympathize with, but they are also flawed, sometimes in similar ways. They share a determination to get the thing that they want, without always thinking clearly of the long-term consequences of their choices. Solimar does little to prepare for her baby, which is understandable when she must focus on day-to-day survival, and Kavya assumes that her loving heart will break down all barriers.
But the system, of course, is stacked against these women. For Kavya, adoption is costly and difficult, and fostering offers no guarantees. And Solimar’s undocumented status makes her vulnerable to anyone who chooses to prey on her. Her story is by far the more harrowing of the two, as she deals with rape and other forms of violence, both as she crosses the border and after she ends up in detention. Kavya’s pain is more internal and pales in comparison.
That said, I don’t think Sekaran is trying to make the two situations parallel, but I can see how some might find Kavya’s real and legitimate pain to be ridiculous when set against Solimar’s. However, when I think of Little Fires Everywhere, a book with a subplot involving a similar situation, I appreciated that Sekaran spent time with Kavya, letting us get inside her head and see that her love is not about supplying more material possessions but about mothering in all ways that she can. Within their own circles, Kayva and Risha aren’t particularly wealthy. If they were, they wouldn’t have been in this situation.
I do think the book could have been a little leaner. There are sections about Rishi’s work that seemed irrelevant to the main story. And early on, the story skips crucial pieces of Soli’s story, leaving big gaps — these are later filled in through flashbacks, but the gaps were annoying and might cause some readers to give up early. There are plot twists that struck me as unlikely, but sometimes life takes unlikely twists. In the moment, as I was reading, only one point, involving the specifics of how Kavya and Soli’s lives become entangled, really bothered me, but by then, I was so ready for that part of the story to begin that I shook it off, even as I rolled my eyes. Give me a good story about people I care about, and I’ll overlook a lot.