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Book Review: The Farm

29 July 2019
Appeared in BioNews 1008

The Farm

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 manipulative machinations. 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 of the Hosts are also from low-income backgrounds.

Yet 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. Consequently, its story seems eerily applicable to some real-world, 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 realised 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, and are secretly filmed and monitored. They are 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 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 how it ended, and the epilogue. Not because the conclusion 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 commercial family services, including surrogacy, will be booming.

Buy The Farm from Amazon UK.

21 October 2019 - by Dr Katia Neofytou 
This September, news broke of the dismantling of an organised crime group involved in illegal adoptions, egg-selling and commercial surrogacy in Thessaloniki, Greece...
5 November 2018 - by Annabel Slater 
The Handmaid's Tale portrays a societal response to infertility taken to the darkest of extremes. After watching the two seasons of it, I am struggling to link it to today's world without getting on my soapbox to protest for women's rights and the importance of a secular state...
24 July 2017 - by Natalie Gamble 
As a supporter of surrogacy, I expected the television adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale to be uncomfortable viewing. Margaret Atwood's chilling dystopian novel is well known for being the ultimate warning against surrogacy...
7 October 2013 - by Dr Kirsty Horsey 
I'm not sure how a television documentary manages to be saddening, heartwarming, uplifting and worrying all at the same time. BBC Four's House of Surrogates, which focused on one provider of paid-for surrogacy in India, where all the women acting as surrogates for one Gujarati clinic spent 'their pregnancy away from home in dorms', managed it...
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