Review: The Farm by Joanne Ramos

I really liked this slow-burner of a novel about a program for the wealthy who want surrogate parents.  Ramos creates what I found to be a very believable scenario and raises a lot of really interesting issues regarding parenthood, wealth, immigration, race and class.  A corporation creates a home for young women to bear the children of the wealthy.  The program is run by Mae, a Chinese-American woman in her thirties.  Golden Oaks is Mae’s brainchild, and it’s a thing of beauty.  Up to thirty young women, carefully chosen as surrogate parents, live in a fine manor in upstate New York where they are given the best health care, nutrition, and environmental supports.  Even their emotional states are well-cared for, because of course that benefits the baby.

Despite its finery, Golden Oaks is aptly called “The Farm” by some of its residents, because with all this care comes monitoring and very little freedom.  These women are now bearing children for a Client, and the Client comes first.  They sign a detailed contract giving up many of their rights in exchange for very large bonuses at each trimester and when the children are born.

The Farm is told from the perspective of Mae and two of the Farm’s residents, Jane and Reagan, as well as Jane’s cousin Ate.  Jane is a young Filipina who has just had a baby and can’t make ends meet.  Her cousin Ate is a baby/nursing specialist for a lot of wealthy clients.  She tells Jane about the Farm and offers to care for Jane’s daughter Amalia while Jane is away (once you’re on the Farm, you can’t see anyone for nine months).  Jane can make enough money in nine months to get back on her feet and give Amalia a better life when she gets back.  It’s a tough choice, to give up the first year taking care of your child, but a reasonable one.

This book has been marketed as a Handmaid’s Tale type of dystopia, but readers expecting that will be disappointed.  There’s nothing futuristic about this novel because everything in it could easily happen today.  We already wear health trackers on our wrists and have listening devices in our homes.

The issues raised about the commodification of women and babies are complicated.  Most of the surrogates are low-income women of color, for whom The Farm is an extremely tempting option.  And the white surrogates are considered “premium hosts.”  But surrogacy isn’t all bad, and this book spends time on the positives and the negatives.  Sure, surrogacy involves a human being basically selling their body for nine months.  But on the flip side, we already can sell eggs and blood, and many low-income people have far less attractive options.  It’s true that surrogacy means the wealthy can basically buy someone to face the health risks and discomfort of pregnancy for them.  But there are women who enjoy being pregnant and don’t have a problem with carrying a baby for someone else.  And maybe that someone  couldn’t have a child any other way.  If it’s thoughtfully done, can it benefit both parties?

I liked the subtlety of the issues faced by the surrogates in this book.  There’s a moment where Reagan is getting an ultrasound, where she realizes the doctors are talking about her body not to her, but to her Client, where I began to truly feel uneasy.  Then Reagan’s body is poked, prodded, and bared to the medical team and the Client without anyone asking her, and she realizes she is truly a possession, not someone who is cherished and helping people, as she likes to see herself.

I always appreciate a book where there are no clear heroes and villains, and The Farm does that well.  Mae can certainly be villainous but she isn’t all bad, and Jane, Reagan and Ate have positive and negative qualities that are understandable given their circumstances.

I thought this book was slow-moving at first; it spends too long on Ate’s baby-consulting practice before getting to Golden Oaks.  Also I had mixed feelings about the ending, which felt too neat to me, and the writing has a “hit you over the head” quality that didn’t feel true to the complexity and heightened emotion conveyed in the rest of the book.  But that said I still found this a thoughtful, entertaining, and at times chilling read.

Note: I received a complimentary advance copy of this book from NetGalley and Random House.  This book was published May 7, 2019.

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