Friday, April 28, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Shout out to the UTSA Library for having Shanthi Sekaran's Lucky Boy on their shelves, and for being able to not only hold it for me, but also deliver it to my office. Having a brand new library book, that no one else has read yet, hand-delivered to you is a special feeling. Plus, I was excited to delve into this story of two very different families and the little boy they would both come to love.

The Situation: Solimar, or Soli, has decided that she must leave Mexico and head north, like many of the other young people that used to live around her. The small town of Popocalco simply has nothing to offer her, and she longed to live a life of possibility and hopes in the US. She would attempt to make the dangerous and long journey to Berkeley, California, where her cousin Silvia already lives with her two boys. Her father has made a deal with a man to help his daughter cross the border, even though that may mean Soli having to lay in a small hidden space in the man's car. 

Kavya and Rishi are an Indian-American couple already residing in Berkeley, him as a ventilation specialist for a large company, and her as chef for one of the many sororities on the UC Berkeley campus. As a somewhat typical Berkley couple, both Kavya and Rishi would consider their lives to be fairly complete. Naturally, they both wish they were a bit more successful than they are in their respective fields; they would like to have more money to spend; and they would like it if they could live up to their parents' near impossible expectations. But more than anything, they would like to have a child, and after months of trying, it becomes clear that this is not going to happen in the usual way.

The Problem: As soon as Soli's journey begins, things become difficult and dangerous. The man that was supposed to help her across the border has other ideas. Plus, being a woman alone on a journey north is an incredibly perilous thing, even after she manages to join up with a group of young boys determined to make their fortune in Arizona. But Soli does what she has to do, and manages to make it to her cousin's apartment in Berkeley both tired and victorious. And pregnant. It is her child that will end up being the answer to Kavya and Rishi's prayers. After deciding to foster and adopt, Ignacio El Viento Castro Valdez would be the child to end up in their home. When both Soli and Silvia are discovered to be illegal immigrants following an incident in the city, they are sent to jail, and then to immigrant detention centers, which means Ignacio is now officially under the care of the state of California. For Kavya it is love at first sight, and she cannot imagine life without him, even as the fear that he will some day be taken from her and given back to his birth mother hangs over her and Rishi's entire existence. And though Soli's situation seems hopeless, she refuses to give up on her son, or on herself.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set mostly in present-day Berkeley, California. Soli ends up there after traveling up from Mexico, though the journey is not easy, and there are many moments when she is not sure she will make it. And even after she arrives, she struggles to earn a living as first a housekeeper, and then a nanny once her son is born. Her story centers not only on immigration policies in the US, but also the dangers that come for those who decide to take that often perilous trip north; how many immigrants, particularly female immigrants, are often treated in detention centers; and just how powerful a mother's desire to be with her child can be. For Kavya and Rishi, though mostly Kavya, the story revolves around the intense desire to have a child. And when it is not possible to have their own, they are more than happy to take on someone else's, as long as there is a little body occupying space in their home and in their hearts. Rishi even notes to himself that his wife seems to have become a different person, not only when they are trying to get pregnant, and when they finally take Ignacio into their home, but also when the reality sets in that he may not get to stay with them. And when custody does eventually become an issue, the question ultimately becomes who should Ignacio stay with? Does Soli, as the birth mother, have ultimate and final rights to him, even if that means he will be deported back to Mexico with her? Or should Ignacio stay with Rishi and Kavya, a fairly stable Berkley couple with whom the child has lived with and now knows as his parents? This is not an easy question, but there still has to be an answer.

My Verdict: In the synopsis, this book is described as one with no obvious hero or villain, and for the most part, I can agree with that. Soli is not a bad person or mother. She took chances, a lot of them, and some worked out while others failed miserably. And unfortunately for her, the US is typically not kind to illegal immigrants who make mistakes. Kavya and Rishi are not bad people either: not for wanting to adopt Ignacio, and not for doing everything they can to keep him under their roof. Sekaran does an excellent job keeping things objective, mostly by telling the story from both points of view. Of course, there is a strong possibility that a reader will end up picking a side anyway...I certainly did. And the third person omniscient narrator does not offer any recommendations or commentary. Nor does the narrator give only the facts, but instead manages to tell an emotional story of how one boy came into existence, and then managed to have two families that loved him dearly. Whichever side you end up on, Lucky Boy is a book that will challenge what we believe about motherhood and adoption.

Favorite Moment: Any time Soli manages to defy all odds and get herself out of what looks to be an impossible situation.

Favorite Character: Kavya's mother Uma can be an impossible woman to get along with. She does not understand why her daughter has not had a child yet, and is not shy about voicing her disapproval when the subject of adoption comes up. But the first time she meets Ignacio, it is clear that she will be a great grandmother to him every chance she gets.

Favorite Quote: "Just weeks before, this trip had felt impossible, but now she saw that impossibility was only ignorance shrouded by poverty."

Recommended Reading: A book with similar themes but a very different plot is The Light Between Oceans by  M.L. Stedman. Both books are emotional and present difficult situations that do not have easy solutions.     

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