Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran, review by Bruce Jacobs
Nothing is easy for undocumented Mexican immigrant Solimar "Soli" Castro Valdez in Shanthi Sekaran's second novel, Lucky Boy (after The Prayer Room). Nor is it a piece of cake for Indian American Kavya Reddy, who at 35 is a Cal-Berkeley sorority cook whose husband, Rishi, works at the Bay Area dotcom Weebies, a popular website for all things baby and parent. With their small Craftsman bungalow, Prius and convenient commute, Kavya and Rishi seem to have it knocked--except for Kavya's craving for a child, both to appease her traditional parents' expectations and to fill a hole in her life: "She'd come to Berkeley to find herself, but found that her self was not enough. She wanted a self of her self."
Two thousand miles south, Soli is desperate to escape her tiny Oaxaca farm town. She fills a backpack with bottled water and heads for El Norte with a sketchy "coyote." Weeks later she arrives at her cousin's house in Berkeley after a harrowing ride on Mexico's informal immigrant express train "The Beast"; a gang-rape by bandits in the Arizona desert; and a spirit-crushing ride through California in a truck full of onions. A disheartened and pregnant brown woman without papers among the privileged who prowl farmer's markets "as if fresh herbs and homemade kombucha were all that could matter in the world," Soli takes a housekeeping job to pay board at her cousin's, send a little home to her parents and save something to seed the American dream for her expected son--her lucky boy.
From this dramatic setup, Sekaran builds an ambitious story that touches on sweeping themes of fertility, immigration, motherhood, racism and class struggle. While Soli unexpectedly becomes pregnant during her journey, Kavya and Rishi remain childless after many years of trying. In her frustration Kavya reflects: "She was an Indian woman. Surely a country of one billion people had produced some capable wombs." But after diligently tracking ovulation cycles and a devastating miscarriage, Kavya abruptly tells Rishi: "I want a kid now... like Veruca Salt demanding an Oompa Loompa.... I want to adopt."
As the Reddys work through the social services adoption bureaucracy, Soli delivers her healthy son, Ignacio, and for a year she carries him everywhere. When she and her cousin are in a car accident, however, Immigration discovers that she is in the country illegally. Ignacio, a U.S. citizen by birth, is taken to social services while Soli is put in a detention center to await deportation. No surprise in who become Ignacio's foster parents. But that is not the end of the story. The personal bonds and rights of a birth mother are strong, as are the opportunities provided to a child by loving foster parents. There are few easy solutions to life's toughest problems, but Sekaran's Lucky Boy goes a long way toward putting a humanizing face on them.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.