Love (and Lives) on the Balance: ‘Lucky Boy’ by Shanthi Sekaran

9781101982242In her new novel, Lucky Boy (472 pages, Putnam), Shanthi Sekaran plunges readers into the drastically different yet irrevocably intertwined lives of two women, and in doing so explores facets of motherhood, immigration, and the American experience. Solimar Castro Valdez is eighteen when she leaves the impoverished cornfields of Santa Clara Popocalco in Oaxaca for “the promise of forward motion” in California. Her journey north is nightmarish; she is nearly forced into drug smuggling, she survives a rape, witnesses the horrific death of a boy, and for days rides in the bed of a truck, gagging on the stench of onions. In the middle of this tribulation, she falls for another traveller, a young man named Checo, who rides with her through Mexico atop the infamous train nicknamed La Bestia. As they near the U.S. border, they are separated, but the sense of determination Checo instills in Soli remains with her for the rest of the story. By her own volition and ingenuity, Soli finds her cousin’s house in Berkeley. By the time she arrives, her hair shorn, Soli is pregnant. Despite the journey, and despite the uncertainty of what her life will be like in America as an undocumented woman—and a mother—she remains eager to start her new life.

Sekaran seamlessly alternates between Soli’s story and that of Kavya Reddy’s. Kavya lives with her husband, Rishi, in a bungalow in Berkeley. The children of Indian immigrants, Kavya, who is in her 30s, is the chef at a Cal sorority house, and Rishi is a “ventilation engineer” at a Silicon Valley tech company. They bike to work, spend lazy Sunday mornings naked in bed, and take trips to the farmer’s market. Kavya’s privileged day-to-day existence initially stands in stark contrast with Soli’s. “Her grown-up life was fat with pleasure, but after three years, then four and five, the pleasure grew thin. She’d come to Berkeley to find herself, but found that her self was not enough. She wanted a self of her self,” Sekaran writes. “She wanted a child.”

Kavya aches for motherhood. For months, she and Rishi have an “abundance of sex,” which transitions from pleasure-filled and romantic to a wordless chore. “They were working unnaturally hard at this most natural of tasks.” They even try ruinously expensive fertility treatments. At one point, Kavya is laying in bed, meditating on how she wants to be a mother, so deeply that she focuses on her uterus. Kavya imagines it shredding and tearing. “Her body was no home for a baby. But her lovely bungalow was, her charmed life.” This conviction carries Kavya through her decision to adopt, directing her path toward Soli.

Soli has been working diligently as a nanny and housekeeper, taking her baby boy, Ignacio, with her to work, sending money home to her parents, paying various debts and household expenses to her cousin. After a traffic violation turns into a calamitous run-in with the police, Soli’s undocumented status is discovered, and she’s locked up at detention facility. Ignacio is taken from her by social services and put in a foster home—until he meets Kavya. Kavya, for whom foster parenting is a step toward a possible adoption, is told from the beginning Ignacio has “a mother who is very much alive and very much willing… and there is a chance—a good chance— that she’ll be back for him soon.” With every storybook read, every diaper changed, and every sleepless night, Kavya lets this knowledge fall by the wayside as her affection deepens to parental love for Ignacio. “She rushed from work each evening with the urgency of a nursing mother. Her breasts lay slack and empty, but her chest swelled with need, and with the belief that he was waiting for her.” Meanwhile, Soli is painfully lactating through her prison uniform, as Alien 127678. Kavya, living in the blindspot of her all-consuming love for Ignacio, is blissfully unaware of the terror Soli endures behind bars.

The length of Sekaran’s novel allows for a cyclical quality, showing the reader the long stretch of time that goes by as Kavya and Rishi raise Ignacio and Soli reckons with her dire situation.. Enduring oppression and dehumanization like what she experienced on her journey north, Soli all the while hungers for her son. “At night, she cradled the microscopic slips of her son that had passed from his body to hers. She forged for memories of him.” Eventually, Ignacio’s future rests on a contentious custody battle between Kavya and Soli, one that draws the media and protest.

What stands out most about Lucky Boy is how Sekaran captures the complexity and the trials of motherhood, asking the reader to consider everyone’s position so that we would want both Soli and Kavya to be the mother of Ignacio. Sekaran is successful in getting us because of how deeply we inhabit the lives of her protagonists. (This intimacy with Soli and Kavya is born out of the detailed research Sekaran has done over the past five years, examining all sectors of society that play an integral role in her book, from parents of adopted children to undocumented immigrants.) When we are in Kavya’s world, we are so engrossed in how she is building her relationship with Iggy that we emotionally distance ourselves from Soli. But when we are back behind bars with Soli, we share her rage against this woman who stands in the way of reuniting with Nacho, her son. Like the dedication the protagonists show toward Ignacio, Lucky Boy is obviously a labor of love.

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