If you are following along with the book club! We are about halfway through the book. Page 179 for me. And if you are listening on audiobook, it’s right after Mae has her big meeting with Leon. Once again, I’ll keep my questions broad. I know everyone is reading at a different pace.
I cannot even tell you all how much I enjoyed the conversation last week. So many people shared their personal experiences with surrogacy and pregnancy and parenthood. I love how varied the conversation is. And I want to highlight a comment from last week about how places like Golden Oaks are not that far-fetched. And how, they’ve kind of happened here in a way already.
This week, I’m wondering about who you think the heroes and villains are in this story so far? I’m also thinking about how everything at Golden Oaks seems to be going awry and about the futile attempts by Mae to commodify and streamline and optimize something so inherently human and unpredictable (babies are unpredictable!). Are there limits to our efforts to make everything efficient?
Also, everyone has different motivations for being at the farm and part of the farm. How are you parsing through those motivations? Is there one that troubles you more than the others?
I’ll jump into the comments. But I’m really struggling with parsing out Ate’s character. She’s very complex. As a writer, I’m in awe at the layers Ramos unveils with Ate. As a human, I’m even more in awe somehow of her justifications, her enterprising nature, and her (seemingly) amoral striving.
I think this is the genius of this book, the ambivalence about everything and everyone. Even simple actions can't be categorized into my usual judgments. Dressing up with dangly earrings to snag a rich husband... seems frivolous, selfish, manipulative, etc. But then it's also part of a deep and slow strategy to return to her disabled son. Every time I settle on a judgment, Ramos challenges it. I think one of my big take-aways is that ambivalence, how multiple layers can still be true at the same time, and how cautious I should be with applying that judgmental lens to anyone's life choices (including my own!)
I don't like how they treat the "hosts" like children. They cannot walk alone, they cannot drink coffee (even frickin' lamaze magazine said you could have two cups of coffee....sheesh!). Also, if they want to keep the hosts happy, they should treat them more like adults. Reagan should have been able to keep her camera. Jane should have had visits with her daughter set up ahead of time. I also think Lisa would not agree to do it three times so close together if she had any desire to have her own kids. She could have had problems that made it impossible for her to have her own children. I think the family that hired her for three pregnancies is gross. Why would you want a woman to have three babies for you when you wouldn't even have one for yourself. I think the book just blows over the fact that pregnancy isn't always easy or uncomplicated just because you are young and it's a big deal. It's not just morning sickness and gaining weight. Also, they never talk about the births at all. Some women have lasting trauma and physical injuries due to birth no matter how healthy they are. One in 9 (maybe more now) women get postpartum depression.
I have a question about the whole New York-ification of everything. I can't verify the authenticity by my experience alone. I have never existed in that level of class and wealth -- either as a member of it or as someone paid to serve there in some capacity. Phrases like "... Chanel tweed shift dress from last season" make me wonder, do people really notice this? Is that a thing outside of the movies? I come from the land of (sees someone wearing a hoodie with FSU on the front), "Did you go to Florida State?" "Oh, this? Nah. My wife bought me this at a garage sale."
This question you posed is such a good one Lyz - are there limits to our efforts to make everything efficient? I've been thinking about this a lot in my own life, and it is raised in many of the story lines of the book (Mae, Ate, Jane....). I'm a single mom, working full time, and trying (desperately) to make my life function on a day-to-day basis, and I have bumped up against the limits to efficiency - when it conflicts with my own humanity or the humanity of others. I think that's the absolute limit of efficiency, and the challenge is that not all folks' humanity is equally honored.
I have finished the book (which I loved), but will only say now that I had already made many assumptions about the characters and their motivations and how this was all going to play out way too early in my reading. I think we all do this in our daily lives making assumptions (judgements) and jumping to conclusions without having all the facts... Life and people are complicated.
I'm not sure about heroes yet, although I think some of the obvious villains are the wealthy folks.
As for Mae's attempts at controlling everything, it's like she's trying to hold a beach ball underwater. No matter how hard she pushes, it will keep popping up out of the water. The only way for her to make sure it stays under the water is to slash it with a knife and remove all the air inside.
I agree that Ate is complex. I'm curious to see how things turn out for her. I have a feeling things won't be great ...
so much of this, even the tiniest parts of the story, seem to all be metaphors for capitalism’s inescapable grip on us in society. clearly there are examples & direct conversations about it within the text but it’s the small mirrors held up throughout that seem to drive it home the hardest for me. under capitalism one small mistake can completely destroy your life if you don’t have enough privilege to anchor yourself down. The tick situation is a prime example of this. Jane suffers the consequences of a mistake that is hardly hers, while the main (white!!) perpetrator gets off pretty much scott-free. i feel like Ate also demonstrates this when she’s talking about Jane’s pattern of making dooming mistakes each time she gets her feet under herself. To me, this feels exactly like how unforgiving capitalism is, a vicious cycle that we can only pretend to control, which sucks. To Ate, who has understandably drank the koolaid, it feels like this is all Jane’s fault for not being perfect like her & considering the consequences. The market tells us the same things, promises us we are closer to being millionaires than being homeless as long as we make all of the right decisions, of which the opposite is true. Also makes me think about the contradictions between “free, unfettered markets” and what they are attempting to do at the farm, which is fully control something that is ultimately uncontrollable.
Ate seems like a lot of people who always have a lot of plates in the air and integrate win win situations with immediate crisis management. I kind of respect that she's always looking to make a buck for herself or her folks. Because she's working with fragile lives, I want to judge her but she seems basically kind.
I like the book and find the premise scarily interesting. The characters are complex, layered, and real but find the descriptions of the Farm, the apartment, the homes they work at are not as believable. They are so bare bones that it’s difficult to envision the characters’ surroundings as any place real.
I just wanted to say "Thank you" for the book recommendation. I'm not a parent, so I have nothing to add to discussions, but I very much enjoy reading your commentary and that of others.
I don't think it's remotely out of the realm of possibility that a place like Golden Oaks could exist. There isn't anything that isn't monetized today. People need to make money and other people are willing to pay money. Ate is doing everything she can to make money for Roy, at the expense of others. What wouldn't a parent do for their child? The bottom line is she cares more for Roy than she does for Jane and Amalia. Jane is doing what she feels she has to do to make a lot of money. Jane represents every marginalized person who can't find a job that pays a living wage. For Mae to hold Amalia out of Jane's reach is pretty reprehensible. She is my least favorite character. Ate is a close second.
As a 6x egg donor, this book REALLY resonates with me and various ways I've felt about different donation situations. And the discussion between Macy & Regan reminds me of an organ donation episode of EconTalk I listened to 5+ years ago. I appreciate how muddy the waters are between heroes and villains and highlights the complexity of the varying value systems and ways in which so many things can be both ethical while unethical. It's refreshing, my brain typically thinks in these more ecosystem-y types of ways, so it's enjoyable to not be spoonfed binary judgements on the various characters & their choices. Though there's (at least to me) very OBVIOUS "that's not ok" moments with tertiary characters, such as when Mrs. Carter's friend films the Filipina nannies without regard or consent, the doctor who rips open Regan's cover to show her body to the client & quite a few other moments.
Really enjoying reading this book. Jane's chapter starting on page 143 was a trip! So much action packed into those pages. I didn't know we were reading to 179 so I stopped at the end of this chapter but was desperately wanting to forge on.
Who you think the heroes and villains are in this story so far?
Heroes : Reagan, maybe? I'm not sure its clear yet but Reagan does seem to be trying to do right by hosts at the Farm. One of the only characters that I can think of who tries to do right by others and not use them in some way (oh, Lisa). It'd be telling if that were the case that the Premium Host would be the one to shake things up but we also know she has the least to lose. She's a trust fund kid trying to get out from under a trust fund. Take, for instance, this line from Mae's chapter on page 178: "She [Mae] wishes Reagan were more motivated by the money, so that her interests and those of the Clients were completely aligned." By not being beholden to the money Reagan is freed to be more demanding and, dare I say, difficult to seek change.
Villain : I'm tempted to argue for Mae Yu or Ate but I think capitalism and its inherently exploitative incentives is the real villain here. When Ate goes to her clients house to collect and the client, whom Ate needs to keep happy since she hasn't been paid and likely counts on her referrals, twists the situation to ask Ate for more and not pay her for it. In business transactions we have standards and the law to help govern this type of scenario. But in personal interactions, especially with the privilege scale so imbalanced, Ate has no real recourse. She just has to take it. Just like Anya and her abortion, Jane and her firing from the Carters, Reagan and her being left out of her own pregnancy, and even Mae who is at the whim of Leon (30 under 30?) and the clients.
Are there limits to our efforts to make everything efficient?
There is when we are talking about people. Systems and machines can continue to improve. There's a reason one of private equities most powerful tools is "continuous improvement". But people and bodies are so complex. In going through the pregnancy period of my first born I was made aware of how little we actually understand about the process. It seemed like we are meant to rely more on statistics than actual science. As the story also makes clear, as we try to make human endeavors more efficient we remove the humanity from them. The Hosts really are vessels with little freedom and a long list of to-dos (I'm sure all based on what is most likely to lead to a healthy baby). For instance, they don't sing or talk to their babies instead they wear equipment on their bellies with a curated playlist for maximal fetal benefit. It's not about the hosts connecting with the babies so the Farm circumvents the hosts' involvement as much as possible.
I think at this point in the book, (I've already finished) I felt like Mae and Ate were the main villains. I felt that Reagan was sort of heroic at this point. Of course, my feelings change a bit by the end. I struggle most with Reagan's motivations for being there. On the surface it seems as though she is only there to break free from her father's control. But, as Lyz stated, Ramos's characters are extremely layered and, as it turns out, there is more to it than that.
I’m not sure if the book has a hero. The characters who are pragmatically aware of the rules of the world they live in and play to their own advantages (Mae, Ate, Lisa) are perhaps too cold and mercenary to be heroes, but the characters who are more soft-hearted and driven by feelings (Reagan, Jane) can seem foolish and naive. The villain, however, is obviously capitalism. A system that reduces humans to commodities is what makes people like Mae, Ate and Lisa bend morals in favor of pragmatic self-interest and will find ways to exploit the emotional vulnerabilities and precarities of people like Reagan and Jane.
Apologies for the late reply to this thread, but I needed the weekend to catch up to all the readers! Like many here, I struggle to find any heroes at this point. Perhaps an unpopular opinion, but I'm still very skeptical of Reagan. At this point in the book, it seems to me that she's being positioned as a "nice white parents" kind of savior. She's definitely empathetic and kind, but she seems to be co-opting the experiences of the less well-off characters, only rather than trying to escape abject poverty, she's trying to escape a controlling father.
I also love the complexities of Ate and am not ready to put her in either column just yet!
Could we nominate Leon as the villain?
Interesting question about whether we hit a limit on efficiency. In this book, Mae uses but one tool to achieve efficiency: control. What if the women at Golden Oaks were given more autonomy?
I had a weird pregnancy dream last night. This book must be really digging into my subconscious.