By Joanne Ramos
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN-10: 1526605252, ISBN-13: 978-1526605252
Buy this book from Amazon UK
Wealth buys everything. Joanne Ramos' novel The Farm paints a vision of commercial surrogacy unfettered and taken to its extreme: high-end surrogacy for the rich. In her story, not only can the rich and successful outsource childcare to nannies and au pairs, but they can also purchase the bodies of young women to gestate their embryo.
This new enterprise has been seized on by Mae Yu, a chilly and ambitious businesswoman whose point of view (POV) chapters are a blend of expensive product names and machinations on manipulation. A driven Chinese-American graduate of Harvard Business School, she has created Golden Oaks Farm, a cross between a luxury wellness retreat and a tightly surveilled prison facility. Recruited surrogates are called Hosts, while the parents of the embryos they gestate are the Clients. As a business, the Farm caters to its Clients' wishes and whims, even if not backed by science. Clients prefer Hosts who are attractive, and ideally educated. Pregnant Hosts are required to spend time playing tapes of languages and music to the fetuses inside of them. Hosts must follow strict exercise and diet regimens. In short, Hosts must do nothing to compromise the health of the fetus they are gestating, for in this business, that fetus is all that matters.
But Mae is just one of several POV characters in the book. The main character is Jane, a meek and conscientious young Filipina single mother. Jane first finds childcare work amongst the arrogant Manhattanites of New York, later her cousin recommends her to The Farm. Just sign a lengthy contract - Jane does not read it herself - and gestate an embryo at the Farm for the next nine months. Every month, a salaried payment, a performance bonus when each trimester is met, and the majority of the money delivered only following a live birth. She is doing this for her daughter, Jane reminds herself.
Ramos skilfully uses different characters' POV chapters to dissect the reasons and self-justifications of high-end commercial surrogacy. Money is at the core of everything, and how each character justifies the pursuit of it depends on their background. Mae Yu is preoccupied with success - expanding Golden Oaks and attracting the investment (and pregnancies) of a Chinese billionaire. She sees her business as basic supply and demand. Jane wants money to secure a good future for her child in America. Most Hosts are from low-income backgrounds.
Two American Hosts, Lisa and Reagan, are young college graduates who have chosen high-end surrogacy as a rebellious shortcut to riches. Reagan, who is another POV character, is a combination of privilege and confused desires. She wants money to buy a future as a photographer, but she also wants reassurance that this kind of surrogacy could be moral and politically correct. It is her choice to be here, Reagan reminds herself.
Given a front-row seat to Mae Yu's breathtakingly blithe manipulations of the Hosts, I felt certain the story would descend into the dark and extreme dystopias akin to The Handmaid's Tale and the state of Alabama. There is no discussion of laws or political history in the book, the Farm is merely the latest venture of a conglomerate business, placed within easy travel of New York, and so its story seems easily applicable to the near-future of today. But the fascinating twist was how innocuous the Farm's conditions sound at first. An abundance of healthy food. On-site medical care. A swimming pool. Luxury bedrooms. There's no harm in playing fetuses speeches by Steve Jobs or Chinese poetry, so why not?
And then I realise that the book is pointing out what liberties people are willing to exchange in return for money, whether for personal goals or for the sake of their children. The problems being, of course, that the women are not allowed to leave the facility, to receive visitors, are secretly filmed and monitored, and displayed to their anonymous Clients via video link to be poked and prodded. No contact with the outside world. No Wifi! Management even discuss using a possible cancer diagnosis as a means to quell a rebellious Host. The surrogates aren't people at the Farm, they are commodities. Like the illegal surrogacy rings that have already appeared in our world (see BioNews 956), they are kept in one place to control them.
Ramos whips up an escape plotline towards the end of the book. I was disappointed with the ending, and the epilogue. Not because it was badly written, but because I wanted catharsis. A condemnation of the insidious practices described in the book, a triumph of morals over wealth and consumerism.
The author herself is Filipina and an American immigrant, has worked in finance, and hired her own Filipina nanny. No doubt this gives her story and characters a ring of authenticity, and explains how she can level both sympathy and criticism at each of her characters. They were realistic enough that I believed each had the potential to overcome the challenges and contradictions of their world. But it would not occur how I hoped.
'It had been nice - exhausting, but nice,' reflects one wealthy character, thinking of the sole single night she, her husband, and year-old baby had spent together - not by choice, of course! - alone.
The message of the book is that so long as disparity exists, any family services, including commercial surrogacy, will be booming.
Buy The Farm from Amazon UK.