I’m not sure how much I’ve talked about this on the blog, but before I went back to school for my MPH, I did prenatal breastfeeding and childbirth education. And I loved it. It’s actually what prompted me to go back to school for public health. Anyways, the reason I bring that up is because it’s also what made me pick up this book. First, the pregnant ladies on the cover definitely caught my eye. And then, after reading the blurb, I knew that I wanted more.
Jane is an immigrant from the Philippines who has just separated from her husband and, with a young child to care for, is desperate for a good-paying job. Reagan is an idealistic, privileged white girl struggling to break free from her father’s expectations and her financial reliance on him. Mae is a powerful businesswoman, looking to further her career and reputation, and very much in control of everything in her life. Ate is Jane’s aunt, who gets Jane in touch with Mae and offers to help in any way necessary so that Jane can create the life she wants for her daughter. These characters/stories come together at Golden Oaks – the luxury resort Mae runs – where women (now including Jane and Reagan) stay for nine months while they are pampered and monitored closely as they gestate the perfect, healthy, babies for rich families who (for whatever reason) prefer to have their children through surrogates.
This novel was fascinating in a way that I’m finding really hard to put into words. Honestly, as I was reading it, I wasn’t all that impressed. I mean, the writing is great (absolutely), but with how interesting the setting/plot seemed after I read the blurb, I felt like it was all developing slowly, that nothing was really happening. The pacing was consistent and reasonable, but just not quite fast enough. There were a number of times where I felt like the info we were getting about each of these four female characters and their surroundings was maybe too much. Or, more accurately, not related enough to the plot. And yet, and yet…I find that now that I am done, I cannot stop thinking about it all. I am unable to pinpoint when exactly it happened, when I got hooked, but a moment definitely came when these characters all became incredibly real and I was swept away in their lives; not in an escapist way, but in a way that was more grounded. Like, I legitimately got to a point where I felt like these characters were straight real people – like I was reading nonfiction, watching a docudrama, or even as if they were acquaintances that I have in real life who were telling me a story about themselves. Their reactions, stresses, motivations, interactions, feelings, backgrounds all become achingly tangible as the story progresses and I am here for the slow-burn the author managed to write it all with. From the first page, things felt a little off. I mean, you know what’s coming, so that contributes to it, but truly it was more than that. And as things progress, the slow ramping up of my investment in the characters and the chilling vibes from the story itself (as the manipulations of the women staying at Golden Oaks are slowly revealed) combine to create an ambiance that has really not let go of me days later. Color me (slowly) very impressed.
As far as my thoughts on what the book accomplished regarding its main theme, the commodification of motherhood, and the surprise secondary theme, the endless quest for the ‘American Dream’ (by immigrant and native-born alike), I am deeply affected. And I think this quote from the Author’s Note sums it up better than many paragraphs of writing from myself could: “In many ways, The Farm is a culmination of a running dialogue I’ve had with myself for the past twenty-five years – about just desserts and luck, assimilation and otherness, class and family and sacrifice. I didn’t write it to come up with answers, because I don’t have them. Instead, the books is meant to explore – for myself, and hopefully for its readers too – questions of who we are, what we cherish, and how we see those who are different from ourselves.” And it did all that and more.
Some additional things I want to point out (or emphasize) are as follows. Primarily, the exploration of the vast cognitive distances between what people will act on/for (or understand others acting on/for) in line with their own personal belief systems (money, morality, motherhood, etc.) was so well developed. Getting to see many of the major life-changing decisions and reasonings from both the characters’ own perspectives (including the many explanations/rationalizations) as well as from outside perspectives, really helped clarify and shine a sharp light on these differences. Also, these varying perspectives of events was very illuminating in allowing us to see exactly how the different backgrounds and motivations for each character affected their decisions (and therefore the entire direction of the plot) when logic went out the window and emotions took over. I mentioned this earlier and I must reiterate it here, the subtlety with which the author manages this is profound – I barely realized how well it was being communicated until it was over and I was left stewing in it all (in a good, not gross, way).
Although there were some plot points that seemed less likely/realistic than others (particularly, in my opinion, many of Mae’s actions regarding Jane in the Epilogue), I think those are all, in the end, secondary. This is definitely an example of a book where the substance is in the issues, not the plot. It was so much more reflective and penetrating than I was expecting it to be (more psychological thriller than outright speculative horror, if you will). It’s also particularly affecting that while this is presented as a dystopian type story, it is one which, if you told me underground businesses like this were already underway, I would be not at all surprised. That element of likelihood/possibility that adds extra layers of intensity to the overall vibe, message and importance of this novel – an unexpectedly biting social commentary about the morality and consequences of making women’s bodies even more of a commodity than they already are.