Joanne Ramos's novel, The Farm, is an eye-opening story of surrogacy - for the elite.
If you liked The Handmaid's Tale, you'll love this book. The characters will stay with you long after you read it, and the ramifications of using the body as currency will really make you think.
Ramos is from the Philippines, and lives in the United States. Her story centres on four women, two of whom are Filipinas living and working hard for very little money, which is still a fortune to the families they support back home.
Readers find out how these immigrants truly live - twelve to a dorm room, renting only a bed, until they can get a better station in life.
Jane is one of these women. Bravely leaving her cheating husband, she turns to her older, more experienced cousin, Ate (a Tagalog word, meaning ' older relative' or 'big sister').
Her cousin soon finds her work as a live-in nanny for a wealthy family, but she must leave her baby daughter Amalia in the dorm.
The rich women in these scenes are condescending. They treat their Filipina employees as if they are not there; certainly with no voice or rights of their own. This is fine, they feel, because they pay their caregivers well, and treat them as 'members of the family.'
Mrs Richards, a friend of Jane's employer, walks into her room to film her without her consent, unfortunately catching her expressing the milk she can't give to her own child.
'It was when Jane was working for Mrs Carter that she learned how people saw her. Before that, she assumed she was invisible to the people she worked for. It was a wet day, the rain drumming against the windows of the study, and she was cleaning spit-up from the sofa when she heard a voice declare:
"They seem great - English speaking and diligent and all that. But they lie." It was the voice of Mrs Van Wyck, the friend of Mrs Carter from college.
"My mother always told me you should swap our your help every few years or they become too familiar," Mrs Carter finally said, and Jane's heart sank. "I suppose she was right."
"In a way, you can't really blame them. To them our lives seem so easy," Mrs Carter said.
"But that's exactly why you can't trust them." '(pp.145-6)
The conversations Jane overhears are reminiscent of those of the Commanders' Wives in The Handmaid's Tale:
'Jane overheard Mrs Van Wyck warning Mrs Carter that she was crazy to let someone as young and attractive as Jane into her house:
"Why tempt Ted?" Mrs Van Wyck asked, not knowing Jane was around the corner...picking up cheerios that Mrs Richards' girls had spilled on the carpet.' (p.30)
Mrs Carter's friends are patronising in a culturally insensitive way and pry into Jane's upbringing, making assumptions; all the while under the illusion they're being benevolent :
'Mrs Richards is describing the documentary she is making about the Filipina nannies of her two young daughters. "I think it would add relatability to show us with them, how they're a part of our family. It might be easier to hold the audience's interest with us in it. Not just nannies."
"Of course Xander's getting cold feet. He says it looks bad. You know, a privileged Upper East Sider married to a successful businessman making a film about her help..."
"But it's how you do it," interrupts Mrs Carter. "Harriet Beecher Stowe wasn't black. Art is a leap of empathy!"
To Jane: " So... your mother came to America and found work as a nanny. And now here you are working as a nanny. You followed her path. Imagine if you had a daughter and she-"
"Like recidivism," says Mrs Van Wyck. "Generations of black men going to prison because their dads did."
Jane needs to feed Henry before he becomes overhungry, and he will not drink here. There are too many people.
There are too many distractions. Jane is about to leave the nursery when Mrs Richards stops her.
Mrs Richards: "Give Henry his bottle here, Jane. Don't mind me. I'm just making a movie!"
Using her phone, Mrs Richards films Tina as she hand-feeds blueberries to Lila, shifts to Ester, who is still trying to comfort Lulu, and pans slowly across the nursery until she comes to Henry and Jane.
"Jane, can you move away from the window? The backlighting makes you look too dark," directs Mrs Richards, before intoning, "Three Filipinas. Three babies. Three stories." '(pp29-32)
Things turn to custard at this moment for Jane, and her cousin suggests another job - carrying a child for a woman who cannot carry her own. For a great deal of money. A job at 'The Farm' is enough to get them both out of the dorm, into better accommodation.
All is not what it seems at The Farm. Residents soon find that their contracts are more binding than they thought.
Their every move, diet, exercise, and conversations are monitored. They are cut off from friends and family in a very Stephen King kind of way, and cannot leave until the baby has safely come to term.
Jane is not sure if she can trust anyone with her life, or the precious daughter she must leave in Ate's care for the duration of her pregnancy.
All is not what it had seemed at home either, and when Jane finds out who has really been looking after her daughter, things really begin to unravel.
The three main protagonists in this story are very different and this messes with the readers' sympathy.
Reagan is an all-American girl with a well-off father; '... a lost soul looking for meaning' (p.82). She signs up as a Host at The Farm believing that she is having a child for someone unable to carry a child to term. Has she been told the truth?
Jane is her roommate but they don't really become friends because Jane perceives a cultural gap between them:
'Reagan regrets telling (Lisa) about Jane's habit of cleaning their room whenever the housekeeping staff is scheduled to come in. Lisa theorized that Jane's behavior is ingrained: the Philippines was colonised for so long that Filipinos got used to serving; generations later, their genes are wired for it; that's why the best hotels in Asia are swarming with Filipino staff.' (p.84)
This is an incredulous assumption.
'Reagan and Lisa are from the same world, and Jane is not, and she always knew this.' (p.144)
Reagan sees it this way:
'Lisa says Reagan should stop trying so hard, and she's probably right. But it still bothers Reagan, why she can't break through. She has the sense that Jane judges her. That - based on nothing - Jane has typecast her as just another clueless, rich white girl.' (p.86)
Mae is the Chinese-American mastermind behind The Farm. She is chasing the dollar (like everyone) and seeks male approval. Yet she is not without sympathy for her Hosts.
'...healthy competition pushes everyone to be better...That's what success boils down to, really, what separates the middling from the great. Many of Mae's friends wrote off Mae's first job after college - as a personal shopper at Bergdorf's - as a ploy; a way for her to get steep discounts on designer duds until she landed a husband. But none of her girlfriends had to work. What they missed was that personal shoppers - if they're good - could make great money. And Mae was good; she had a knack for connecting, for being whatever and whoever was demanded - the blessing of being a halvsie, of being on financial aid at a rich kids' prep school, of constantly straddling worlds.' (p.195)
Where does the true evil lie? I would assert that the real bad guy in this story is money.
This is an enthralling story with well-realised characters who allow the reader to access to the many ways that people practice unconscious bias; making assumptions about another's background and motivations.
It's worthy of an award and I hope to see it on lists in the future.