Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaram

Kavya and Rishi Reddy are educated adults in their thirties living in Berkeley, California. Their parents, immigrants from India, have done well for themselves and now just want grandchildren. Except after about a year of trying, nothing is happening. Desperate, the Reddy couple take action, well aware that time is slipping away. Will the Reddy’s — or their parents — accept an adopted child into the family if it comes to that?

Soli is a nineteen-year-old girl from a poor village in Mexico. Her father saves to send her to the U.S. with a coyote, meaning she will arrive undocumented. Fortunately, Soli’s cousin made it to the north years ago and is established in California. Soli luckily survives the journey, but arrives on her cousin’s door step pregnant. She can’t get an abortion; the clinic seems too fancy for her. And so her son, Ignacio arrives.

Because author Shanthi Sekaran sets up her novel Lucky Boy with a lack and a sufficiency, you get where it’s going. Except Soli takes to motherhood and loves her son, with no intention of letting him go. It’s only when she’s stopped by police and put into the immigration detention system that she loses Ignacio to social services, where he enters the foster care system.

Kavya has no intention of being a foster parent; she gets what she wants. But based on my reading of Motherhood So White, a memoir by Nefertiti Austin, I gather than in California all potential adopting parents must start with fostering first, and go through training, too. But Kavya’s attitude — to want and receive — doesn’t fit the system in place, meaning she’s an exhausting character. She tells her husband her plans for their impending parenthood more than communicating with him, and there’s a particularly jarring scene when the Reddy’s go to visit a girl they are meant to foster and Kavya picks out Ignacio instead, as if she’s window shopping for children.

When the story gets out that Soli is detained, lost, and abused in the immigration detention system, local Berkeley students hold a protest against the Reddy’s, chanting that a MasterCard doesn’t make them better parents than Soli, just lacking a Green Card. But that’s just what Kavya argues; she and Rishi can buy Ignacio things, send him to private school, provide him with a home in the U.S. because he was born in the country. They wonder what Soli can provide. Being deported to a country they can’t envision as habitable? Living in a run-down, poverty-stricken village with no access to formal education?

Soli’s cousin, a person who hasn’t drank the Kool-aid of the American dream and instead capitalizes on it, astutely points out that Americans don’t really have more than Mexicans:

“Nobody here has any goddamn money,” Silvia told [Soli]. “Even the people who have money don’t have money.” . . .

“But they have HOMES. That’s something.”

“Mortgages,” Silvia said. “They don’t have homes. They have mortgages.”

And here is where Sekaram’s Lucky Boy makes for good conversation. Is there a standard of parenting in the United States, and does that standard apply across borders and cultures? Is the bar set by people with money (or access to loans), who can’t fathom living without perfectly clean air and bike paths in the city? While the Reddy’s claims appear sound, they’re also dismissing Soli’s life experiences and love for her son. I wasn’t sure how the novel would end, but was satisfied with how it did.

Tangled up in all of that is the fact that no white families are at the center of the story, nor is the author white. I thought Sekaran’s choice made the conversation for readers more difficult in a good way — we’ve read many novels about immigration and white communities’ feelings about it.

The only fault I could find was the side characters Preeti (Kavya’s childhood “friend”) and Vikram (Rishi’s boss who is married to Preeti). This other Indian couple’s lives felt extraneous to the plot, taking up space in a novel that didn’t need more social issues, like Indian parents comparing their children and tech giants who take credit for their employee’s work. Kavya is highly unlikable, which may turn some readers off, but it’s more that her genuine feelings and self-centered worldview clash with reality — that her love for Ignacio may not matter compared to Soli’s.

25 comments

  1. Adoption is a difficult subject. The adoptees I know (whites adopted by whites) seem largely happy with the process though curious about their natural parents. What strikes me here is that Soli bought into the US dream enough for her to make the journey, so why wouldn’t she want it for her child? I wonder what a Mexican author would have made of the same storyline.

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    • She bought into the dream, but once she was caught with fake documentation, she was thrown into a detention center without due process. Undocumented people don’t have the same legal rights, so she was left in a detention center (basically a prison) without any reasonable expectation of being released. While she was there, she was assaulted. Through a lawyer, who was paid by her former employer who felt guilty, Soli learned that they were going to put her son up for adoption. Once he was adopted, she would have zero rights. A dream, yes, but also a nightmare that abuses people.

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  2. This sounds a really interesting book, although Bill’s point just struck home. But then you can only have mixed own voices books written by two or more authors, I suppose …

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    • I think the author did a good job of respecting each character’s background and wishes, weighing their contrasting desires and making the read more challenging because the topic is not simple. Answering Bill’s question fully would spoil the ending!

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  3. This sounds like a difficult read, although an interesting one – especially the character of Kayva. People thinking that they are somehow “owed” a child or “deserve” to be parents (we have long arguments in the UK about exactly how much IVF the NHS will fund, and this often comes up) really makes me cross, because that means that their reasons for becoming parents are inherently selfish. This is doubly a concern for adoption, where children are more likely to be coming from a background of trauma and abuse, and will need unconditional love and acceptance for a long time without perhaps giving much in return! I think I’d probably be too frustrated with Kayva to make it through the novel but it’s a fascinating premise.

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    • Kavya really made me mad, but adding your point about a child perhaps not giving much in return hit me in a new way. I hadn’t thought about that; most narratives we see with adopted kids are how they’re sooo grateful and loving. Most people I know who have fostered children, and have eventually adopted those children, mostly describe struggles, but that’s not what we see in the media.

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  4. This sounds sad and a little infuriating though the question of what’s best for the child is a complex and interesting one. This reminds me of how frustrating I find the “You can always adopt” attitude when it comes to infertility. Because it doesn’t consider what’s best for the child in that scenario but seems to act like children are items you can just go to the store and pick out.

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    • That question of “what is best for the child” is wrapped up in layers. Is a nice house + things + love better? Is his birth mom better? I’ve read a few studies about how being with one’s birth parents, and both parents, whenever possible, is always the best outcome. But that’s hard. Very hard.

      You know, I had honestly never thought about how the “you can always adopt” statement makes children sound like objects. Mostly, I hear people say it’s offensive to bring up adoption because the parents (but typically the mother) want to experience pregnancy, birth, breast feeding, and knowing a child shares their genetics. I always feel weird about that last one on the list, too. It’s all terribly complicated, but you bring up an excellent point.

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      • My understanding is that nowadays there is more of an emphasis on keeping children with their birth families, especially if they are part of a minority group. But it seems like once you have a child in that position, there’s really no perfect solution.

        I think wanting to experience pregnancy etc is a real desire many people have and there is something amazing about watching your child share genetic traits with yourself and your partner. For those who deal with infertility, not getting to experience those things comes with a lot of grief. I think all those desires are natural but I know what you mean too about feeling weird about it. Personally, I’d have a hard time justifying something like IVF over adoption for myself, but I’ve also never had to make that choice. My mom is adopted and she once pointed out to me that my older brother was the first person she’d ever met who was genetically related to her and how amazing that was for her.

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          • Isn’t it? Genetics are obviously not what makes a family but seeing your own genetics shared for the first time in a baby rather than a parent or sibling is kind of a crazy thought.

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            • I will say that when I see parents with children who look exactly like them, I never fail to be amazed. My family are all patchwork. My brother’s hair is dark black, for instance, and I am blonde. Both parents are brunettes.

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              • I always feels amazed when I see siblings who look nothing alike. Like, how do you have the same parents and end up so different in appearance??

                One thing that really surprised my mom was that despite her and my dad both having brown eyes, my brother and I both have blue.

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                • My brother’s black hair is from my mom’s dad. My blond hair is more from my dad’s mom’s dad, I think. So recessive genes, maybe? Not sure! I know blue eyes are recessive, so you and your brother probably got some grandparent eyes. Sometimes, it comes out the opposite of what probability says. Brother has blue eyes, his wife has brown eyes. They have four kids, and only one got the brown eyes.

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  5. This reminds me of that book I read a few months ago about the couple wanting to adopt the baby that the teen mother had, and then the teen mother changing her mind (I can’t remember the name of it!) but these kinds of books are sort of purposely manipulative. On one hand, these parents who want a kid so badly, and who can easily afford to have one are sympathetic in some ways (at least they were in my book) but on the other hand, how can you deny a mother her child? Many say it’s the strongest bond in the world, which is what makes these books so emotional.

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    • I really appreciated Lou’s comment about adoption being sort of like picking out a child from the store, which is why she seems hesitant to make it sound easy, and until she put that thought in my head, I had always considered adoption an ethical choice (well….ish. Women of color are more likely to have children removed from their care and placed into white homes).

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      • Yes, I see where that feeling comes from for sure. Because there are a few adopted people in my family though, and their lives turned out so well, I can see the other side of it-we are really giving some children a better chance at life and success-and in many cases, their mothers as well. It’s all about the execution and process though, it has to be done right.

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        • I have several adopted people in my family, too. Typically, it was adoption of circumstances, such as, “Well, this kid’s been here, guess he’s mine now” — that sort of thing. I think what Lou is saying, and I might be wrong, is that people feel like adopting is very simple, easy, and that they can just pick whatever child they want.

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  6. Melanie and I read this book together. The thought in the back of my mind the entire read was, ” Is he really a Lucky Boy?” The situation with his mother was terribly heartbreaking. The cherry picking foster mom took advantage of a terrible system. Although this was challenging it was well worth the read and made me realize the immigration and foster care system are complicated.

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    • Hey Biscuit, I hope this means you’re going to become a regular commenter. We’re all just readers who talk about what we’re reading and how the subject matter intersects with our own lives. Melanie and I usually haven’t read the book the other is posting about but we get on ok. Hopefully she can introduce an Australian book into your book group and I will be able to comment more sensibly.

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      • Bill, currently our big project is to help me read and then get rid of a box of books on my TBR. Anything that I own that’s also at her library is game. Right now we’re reading Bonfires of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe!

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    • I kept wondering how much more complicated this book could have been if the foster mom wasn’t so self-centered. It would have been lots harder because at no point did I really find myself cheering for her.

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