Lucky Boyby Shanthi Sekaran
"A fiercely compassionate story about the bonds and the bounds of motherhood and, ultimately, of love." —Cristina Henríquez, author/b>/b>
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A heart-wrenching novel about the transformative power of motherhood and the redemptive beauty of love, perfect for readers of Jacquelyn Mitchard, Jenny Offill, and Cristina Henriquez.
"A fiercely compassionate story about the bonds and the bounds of motherhood and, ultimately, of love." —Cristina Henríquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans
In this astonishing novel, Shanthi Sekaran gives voice to the devotion and anguish of motherhood through two women bound together by their love for one boy. Soli, a young undocumented Mexican woman in Berkeley, CA, finds that motherhood offers her an identity in a world where she's otherwise invisible. When she is placed in immigrant detention, her son comes under the care of Kavya, an Indian-American wife overwhelmed by her own impossible desire to have a child. As Soli fights for her son, Kavya builds her love on a fault line, her heart wrapped around someone else's child. Exploring the ways in which dreams and determination can reshape a family, Sekaran transforms real life into a thing of beauty. From rural Oaxaca to Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto to the dreamscapes of Silicon Valley, Lucky Boy offers a moving and revelatory look at the evolving landscape of the American dream and the ever-changing borders of love.
Sekaran’s second novel (after The Prayer Room) humanizes the issue of illegal immigration. Born in a small, impoverished village in Mexico, teenage Soli makes the dangerous journey across the border to the U.S. and ends up in Berkeley, Calif., living with her cousin, Silvia, and working as housekeeper to the well-to-do Cassidy family. In a parallel story, Kavya Reddy and her techie husband, Rishi, frustrated at their inability to get pregnant, decide to adopt. Having become pregnant en route to the U.S., Soli gives birth to a little boy she nicknames Nacho. Arrested, she is sent to immigrant detention and Nacho is placed in foster care, where he eventually comes to the attention of Kavya and Rishi, who attempt to adopt the boy. But they find there is a steep learning curve in becoming instant parents. From her cell in Washington State, Soli fights the Reddys for custody of her son. With the odds stacked against her, she is left with no choice but to make a desperate bid for freedom for herself and her son. Sekaran has made sure to tell a story without obvious villains (except for government functionaries). Despite the unsurprising and drawn-out ending, Soli and Kavya are both given sympathetic treatment thanks to the textured rendering of their lives, and readers will be emotionally invested in Nacho’s fate. Agent: Lindsay Edgecombe, Levine, Greenburg, Rostan Agency. (Jan.)
Living in a village in Oaxaca, Mexico, with few options, Solimar (Soli) makes a harrowing journey across the border and winds up in Berkeley, CA, where her cousin secures her a position as a housekeeper. Meanwhile, Berkeley couple Kavya and Rishi Reddy struggle with their inability to conceive a child. Through a series of circumstances, Kavya and Rishi end up as foster parents to Soli's son, Ignacio, while Soli puts everything on the line to be reunited with him. The novel also humanizes current discussions of immigration, privilege, and what it means to be an American. In contrast to the undocumented Soli, the Reddys are American-born citizens, but their Indian ethnicity at times causes them to be treated as outsiders. Considering what she sacrificed to get to America, Soli has little sympathy for her employers' first-world problems. VERDICT By giving both sides equal weight, Sekaran (The Prayer Room) evokes compassion for all the principals involved in the story, which readers will soon realize will not lead to a fully happy conclusion. Despite a few implausible plot twists in the book's last third, the novel is highly recommended and would be a strong choice for book clubs. [See Prepub Alert, 8/1/16; "Editors' Fall Picks," LJ 9/1/16.]—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis
Two very different women reckon with pregnancy, childbirth, and the meaning of family in Berkeley, California.Kavya is a not-so-good Indian daughter who has failed to live up to her parents' expectations. She's desperate to have a baby with her husband, Rishi, but is unable to conceive. She wanted "to shape her own blood and body into sparkling new life." Soli is an undocumented Mexican immigrant determined to start a new life in America. Betrayed by her border-crossing companion, Manuel, though, she ends up pregnant and single. Without other options, Soli lands a job cleaning houses for a well-to-do white family. Sekaran (The Prayer Room, 2009) intertwines Soli's and Kavya's stories: Soli struggles to navigate life as the single mother of baby boy Ignacio in a strange land, while infertility begins to push Kavya and Rishi further and further apart. But when an accident winds up with Soli in police custody, Ignacio is taken away from her by social services and placed in foster care; Kavya and Rishi, who have given up on fertility treatments and signed up to become foster parents, are selected to provide a temporary home for the baby. While Soli is moved to a detention center for undocumented immigrants—where she undergoes violence and sexual abuse from law enforcement agents—Kavya and Rishi plot to permanently adopt Ignacio. The heartbreaking journeys of these two women, bound by love of the baby boy, are the center of the novel. Sekaran is a master of drawing detailed, richly layered characters and relationships; here are the subtly nuanced lines of love and expectation between parents and children; here, too are moments of great depth and insight.A superbly crafted and engrossing novel.
"The plight of undocumented immigrants is nothing new, but in our current political moment the issue has acquired a fresh urgency. . . . In pitting two very different kinds of immigrants against each other—one comfortably assimilated, the other helpless in every sense—Sekaran offers a brilliantly agonizing setup. . . . [An] exceptional novel." —New York Times
"Sekaran’s prose is swift and engaging, her storytelling confident. . . . Lucky Boy pulses with vitality, pumped with the life breath of human sin and love." —USA Today
"Topical and timely . . . Sekaran's book invites the reader to engage empathetically with thorny geopolitical issues that feel organic and fully inhabited by her finely rendered characters." — Chicago Tribune
"With wit, empathy and a page-turning plot, the novel stirs ethical questions in the reader that the author rightly refuses to answer. Shanthi Sekaran has written a tender, artful story of the bravery of loving in the face of certain grief." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Richly emotional . . . The story will linger in your mind long after you're done with it." —Good Housekeeping
"Like M.L. Stedman in The Light Between Oceans, Sekaran presents a complex moral dilemma that leaves readers incapable of choosing sides. Lucky Boy is a must read."—BookPage
"[E]ngrossing . . . Lucky Boy is an ambitious novel that braids together two complex stories about family and parenting and also takes on the issues of immigration, class privilege and mass incarceration. . . . Sekaran's characters are drawn with such deep compassion." —Dallas Morning News
"Remarkably empathetic...Deeply compassionate...Delivers penetrating insights into the intangibles of motherhood and indeed, all humanity."—Booklist (starred review)
“How lucky the reader who gets to devour Shanthi Sekaran's extraordinary, necessary novel. Lucky Boy is both timely and timeless, depicting the comedy and delights of the world as well as its brutalities and injustices. It's a story about immigration, privilege, and parenthood, and shows us how we are connected, and how we are, perhaps irreparably, divided. It swept me away and took a little piece of my heart with it. It's a perfect book.”—Edan Lepucki, New York Times bestselling author of California
"A moving story about a young boy who's fiercely loved by two mothers." —InStyle, “7 Books You Need to Read in January 2017”
"Heartbreaking and timely, Lucky Boy explores motherhood and lengths we will go to in order to achieve our dreams." —Real Simple
"This is an emotional story about immigration, motherhood, and love that will leave you spellbound." —Bustle, "January 2017's Best Fiction"
"Lucky Boy is both a contemporary page-turner (in the model of Chris Bohjalian’s novels) and a model of delicate, artful writing that lets us see an entire world." —Seattle Times
“Shanthi Sekaran has written a lush and emotionally wrenching novel, and she has written it in some of the most beautiful prose I've read in a long time. This is a fiercely compassionate story about the bonds and the bounds of motherhood and, ultimately, of love.”—Cristina Henriquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans
“Sekaran is a master of drawing detailed, richly layered characters and relationships; here are the subtly nuanced lines of love and expectation between parents and children; here, too are moments of great depth and insight. A superbly crafted and engrossing novel.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"[A] beautiful sense of storytelling and character. . . . Sekaran succeeds in having readers root for both women and against a system that seems to punish them at the same time. This is a story that feels real and well-drawn, in part because it’s a scenario that has happened in the past — and will happen again." —St. Louis Post Dispatch
“Shanthi Sekaran is a wonderful writer—lyrical and astute, compassionate and fearless—and Lucky Boy is a heartfelt and moving novel that challenges our notions of motherhood and the true meaning of home. A deeply beautiful book.”—Molly Antopol, award-winning author of The UnAmericans
“[H]umanizes current discussions of immigration, privilege, and what it means to be an American....Sekaran evokes compassion for all the principals involved in the story...highly recommended and would be a strong choice for book clubs.” —Library Journal (starred review)
"[D]eeply engrossing . . . will likely result in some spirited conversations in book groups and elsewhere. Lucky Boy effectively puts human faces on an issue that is often discussed solely in broad, general terms." —Bookreporter
“An ambitious story that touches on sweeping themes of fertility, immigration, motherhood, racism and class struggle....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.”—ShelfAwareness
"In Lucky Boy Shanthi Sekaran has fashioned an ambitious, compassionate and intelligent book with new things to say on the timely subjects of motherhood, fertility, class and identity. This is a deeply human and humane novel by a gifted young writer.” —Tom Barbash, author of Stay Up With Me
"A gripping, obsessive, character-driven narrative of sacrifice and identity—where the lives of two women become forever tangled in the roots of motherhood." —Simon Van Booy, award-winning author of The Illusion of Separateness
"[A] roller coaster ride full of emotion . . . By far the most amazing character of this novel is Soli, who shows us how to find strength and courage in the face of the biggest and most troubling adversity. Her story is the story of the real-life undocumented workers who risk everything to make a better future for their children. Kudos to Sekaran for tackling this difficult subject." —New York Journal of Books
"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. . . . Like the dedication the protagonists show toward Ignacio, Lucky Boy is obviously a labor of love." —Zyzzyva
“Ambitious in its scope and triumphant in its bold, insightful observation of the flaws and wonders of human nature, Lucky Boy is a gripping tale about two seemingly distant realities intimately seared together by the inescapable forces of motherhood and survival: that of the celebrated upper-crust Silicon Valley visionary entrepreneurs, and that of the lower-class largely overlooked service workers whose underpaid efforts are the real foundation of the Valley's success. Shanthi Sekaran has written an elegantly weaved, heart-stopping novel that highlights the helplessness of money over nature and the futility of technology against true love. You'll have a hard time putting down this book, and when you finish it, you'll have a hard time not thinking, and aching, about it for a long, long time.”—Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, author of Barefoot Dogs
“Sekaran unflinchingly steers her novel into beautifully and ruthlessly heartbreaking terrain.”—Johns Hopkins Magazine
"[A]ffecting and resonsant . . . the complex questions raised by the novel linger long after the book ends." —Berkeleyside
“Shanthi Sekaran is a tough and tender writer, unafraid to dig deep into the messy places in our hearts and lives. Lucky Boy is wonderful, a gripping read and an important story.”—Michelle Tea, author of Rent Girl
“There is something so satisfying about a story that ends as it should.”—Laura McBride, author of We Are Called to Rise
"[R]aises larger questions about adoption and the socioeconomics of immigration." —Sacramento Bee
“Humanizes the issue of illegal immigration...readers will be emotionally invested.”—Publishers Weekly
Praise for The Prayer Room
“Sekaran is a master of cadence...there’s jazz on nearly every page.”—The New York Times
“Sekaran has a voice all her own, and it is delightful.”—Julia Glass, winner of the National Book Award and author of And the Dark Sacred Night
“A perfect debut novel, ambitious and original. With a sweeping array of emotions and uncanny writing skills, Shanthi Sekaran leaps to the forefront of her literary generation.”—Stephen Dixon, critically acclaimed author of Frog and Interstate
“Sekaran’s lyrical prose and insightful cultural details make this an absorbing story. Recommended for all fiction collections.”—Library Journal
“A probing, often humorous view of a culture clash and its many repercussions.”—Booklist
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Clara, patron saint of television and eye disease, stood three feet tall in the church at the end of the road. The road was known generally as la calle, for it was the only one in the village, narrow, sprouting caminos and footpaths as it went. Scattered along it were one church, one store and a one-room schoolhouse, recently closed. The road ended in a small square, where the town hall stood, and a cantina with the town’s only television. It sat on a foldaway table, and when the men weren’t hunched around it watching the football, it spun lazy afternoon offerings of love and betrayal, murder and long-lost sons.
Clara, beauty of Assisi, nobleman’s daughter, ran away one night to a friar at the roadside, was brought to Saint Francis and shorn. Her hair fell like cornsilk to the ground and she traded her dress for a rough brown habit. She walked barefoot and lived in silence and begged for her daily bread. But she didn’t mind. She’d fallen in love with something larger than her world.
Clara was ill one day, Papi said, and couldn’t go to mass. She lay faded in her bed, and what flickered on her wall but a vision of the daily service, from processional to homily to eucharist? And so they made her patron of eye disease, because what could have visited her but a dance of glaucomic flashes? And then television came along and needed a patron, and the pope said Clara. And how about the time, Papi once said, when she faced down an invading army, alone at the convent window with nothing but the sacrament in hand? Now, Clara spent her days tucked into a dim chapel. Day in, day out, alone in the shadows, and if anyone did visit, it was only because they wanted something.
But that night was La Noche del Maiz. The village priest brought her down from her perch and wiped tenderly her web of whisper-fine cracks. He wrapped her in finery, silk robes and nylon flowers, and loaded her on her platform. Four strong men raised her high and she wobbled down the road but didn’t fall—not once had she fallen—and so it began: a trumpet’s cry, a line of altar boys, the swing of a cloud-belching censer.
Fine for a saint, thought Solimar, to wait all year for a single tromp through the village. Fine for a saint to spend all of eternity with her mouth shut, her feet still. Solimar Castro Valdez was no saint. She was breaking out. She’d come out that evening to meet a man, not a friar. His name was Manuel. He owned a car and a passport—the right kind—and he’d be taking her away from this place. And he was there. Right there in Santa Clara Popocalco.
For months, the idea of leaving had lain dormant. But it was stirring now, snuffling to life. Every cell in her body strained against its casing. It was time to leave. It was time.
Manuel would meet her at the entrance to the town hall. Slowly, slowly, the procession moved on. She walked hand-in-hand-in hand with her mother and father. She squeezed their papery old fingers and pulled harder with each step. When they turned a corner, she spotted the clock tower by the church. Seven minutes late already. She flung off her parents’ hands. “See you there!” she cried, and ran.
At the town hall doors: no Manuel. No one who looked like he owned an American passport. A man like that would have to be handsome—not that handsome mattered, not when all she wanted was the land beyond the border, except that she was eighteen and helpless against the nether-murmur of romance.
At the town hall doors, breathless still, she waited. Papi found her and brought her a plate of tamales, which she was too jumbled inside to eat. Mama would be milling through the village plaza and finding old friends from nearby towns, stretching spools of gossip that had begun a month, a year, a decade before.
As the sky dimmed, drums and horns throbbed through the square. Drink had been drunk and around her the village swarmed with new faces: where had they come from? A pair of teenagers leaned and kissed against a tree, a flutter of children linked arms in a circle, running themselves off their feet, a perilous carousel of arms and legs and fevered teeth. Still, no Manuel. She felt she should smoke a cigarette, though she’d never tried one before. She believed a cigarette would make her feel like less of a waiting fool.
Never had she seen so many people here, in her little village. Most days, it seemed the world had forgotten Santa Clara Popocalco. It was the sort of place that existed only because no larger town had cared to claim it. It lay dry and hollow, anchored to this earth by the Sierra Norte to the east, Oaxaca city to the west. Every morning a cold front rolled in from a distant shore. It collided with the hillside and smothered the valley in fog that smelled faintly, sweetly of corn. Every afternoon, the sun burned through the fog, and houses regained their low and addled forms.
Popocalco offered no work, only the growing and eating of a few stalks of corn. When the money left, the people followed, except for the very poor and very old, who still grew crops to feed themselves and sell in local markets, who gurgled through the village square every morning and in the evenings, visiting the church, nodding to the faces, always the same faces, and napping and cooking and eating and washing, sweeping their front steps each day, not exactly waiting to die, Soli believed, but not quite living, either.
For too long, she’d pushed away the thought of leaving. Papi! She was his only one. And Mama. Mama would crawl into bed and never crawl out. But decay had spread like the valley fog, until it found its way to Soli. She’d breathed so much of it in that she couldn’t breathe it out again. She was filling up with silence and heavy bones. She was eighteen. And then, the letter from Silvia. Inside, somewhere between her chest and chin, a seed split open to the sun and she began to wonder: Could she? And how? And eventually: When? And why not? And how soon? Her life lay elsewhere. If she stayed in Popocalco, she’d be staying for them, the gentle old souls, her mother and father and the sullen corn, watching all those lives wind down to their modest end.
The fireworks family entered the square, pushing the castillo de luces, a tower of scaffolding rigged with rockets and sparklers.
In the big picture, Popocalco was nowhere. In the big picture, it was a thin and spiny stretch of the past.
She waited for an hour at the church door, until all her readiness had been sighed away. Papi wandered off. She stood deflated and alone, certain she’d missed Manuel by seven minutes. A brass band began to play, the somber nasal tune Soli had heard every year, for as long as she could remember, at la Noche del Maiz. She closed her eyes. Applause. She didn’t need to open them to know that a teenage boy was climbing the castillo, lifting a fiery pole to the highest joints of the tower. In a moment, the first sparks would pinwheel through the night. And they would begin, one small explosion followed by the next, a rapturous storm.
Punctuality. Seven minutes. Time was religion in America, Papi had warned her. If she’d missed her chance by seven minutes, it was her own wretched fault.
But then, a layer beneath the noise, a rustle. “Solimar.” She opened her eyes. At first, all she saw were the bushy jut of his chin and the gleam of hair slicked back. He could have been the Devil in the firelight, for all she could see. He stepped forward. Papi, all at once, beside her. He shook Papi’s hand. Now this, now here, was a man with a passport. Manuel would visit the next day to go over their plan. He’d get Soli to California, he said, no matter what it took. She was leaving! The promise of it stoked a flame that blazed through her. Already, Popocalco, this house of smoke, was shrinking away. Already, this existence nothing but a distant prick of light. Electrified by the promise of forward motion, Soli stretched up to kiss the sky, growing and growing, until she too was a flaming tower, a castle of light, sparking from the eyes, spitting streaks of joy.
Preeti Patel was getting married. Kavya was wearing black.
The decision wasn’t a symbolic one. She’d bought a black Mysore silk sari on University Avenue on a whim one day. Also on a whim, she’d had the sari blouse stitched in the provocative new cut, held together by nothing more than a thin ribbon tied across her back. She wanted to surprise her husband, so she tied the blouse herself, guided by the bony hills of her scapulae. Eight yards of silk, woven with silver thread. At the end hung a swathe embroidered with banyan trees and antlered deer. She straightened the pleats that cascaded from her hips to her ankles, climbed tidily over her chest and down her back. She clipped on a pair of heavy silver earrings that spilled down to her shoulders and matched her silver choker. Her feet, she slipped into silver stiletto heels.
Rishi looked up when she emerged from the bedroom. He was striking in a blue silk kurta. “You’re wearing black,” he said.
“It’s classy,” she answered.
He crossed his arms, then walked over and kissed the junction of her neck and shoulder.
The sun beat down as they drove. Coastal waters gave way to outlet malls and farmland. It was warm, even for July. Kavya was getting over-warm, but when she turned the AC dial, nothing happened. “What’s going on?”
“Push it in.”
Rishi shrugged. “Open a window then. It’s better for you.” It’s what they did in Berkeley, where the air was crisp enough most days. But Kavya knew well this strain of windshield glare. An open window would bring nothing more than a blast of sick heat. She spun the knob, jiggled it, pounded at it. She was sweating now, her upper lip itching and beaded in sweat. She grunted at Rishi, who seemed to have no intention of helping.
“Sorry?” He sent her a sidelong glance, a wan smile. He glowed in the heat, the way a woman should, his face a collection of plains and fine ridges. He placed a hand on her knee as he drove, which he seemed to think would disarm her. In the old days, Rishi would have pulled over and inspected the air conditioning himself. He would have pulled out the manufacturer’s manual or even re-set their route to take them through more temperate territory. Those were the days when they’d first met, undergrads at UC Berkeley, when Rishi would make his daily appearance in the student cafe where Kavya was barista. He’d spend too long at the counter, ignoring the line behind him, asking her about the coffee beans (about which she knew nothing) or the pastries (delivered weekly by a supplier). He’d do anything, those days, to get their brief transactions to last longer than they should have; he’d show up on campus where he knew she’d be, find reasons to bump into her, leave behind his desi posse to linger on Sproul Plaza, where she recruited for activist groups and ran teach-ins and sit-ins. She was his object of fascination, though she’d been plain without makeup, and he a sculpted ideal. Back then, she wondered why Rishi would be interested in her, aside from the fact that she was tall and reasonably fit. She concluded that a person as immaculately beautiful as Rishi might stop looking for beauty in others. He’d search instead for the non-physical: intelligence, humor, all around chutzpah. Kavya reasoned that she must have possessed some combination of these—or was it simply the fact that she seemed, for a while, to want nothing to do with Rishi? In a world that admired handsome men, welcomed them, promoted them, Kavya became the unattainable, the object of Rishi’s devotion.
But this: this wasn’t devotion. The hand on her knee was a gentle plea to please be quiet, to let him drive and think in peace of whatever it was he was thinking. She jerked her knee, and the hand slid off.
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Meet the Author
Shanthi Sekaran teaches creative writing at California College of the Arts, and is a member of the Portuguese Artists Colony and the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Best New American Voices and Canteen, and online at Zyzzyva and Mutha Magazine. Her first novel, The Prayer Room, was published by MacAdam Cage. A California native, she lives in Berkeley with her husband and two children.
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Absolutely beautiful! I could not put this book down; one of the best books I've read in the past year.
A mother’s love is so fierce and unique, and so perfectly described in this book. Even more equally unique is the love of a foster parent. Both trying to do what’s best for the child and provide them with what they need. What wouldn’t a mother do for her child? Lucky Boy takes the most unbiased look at two sides I have ever seen and leaves you so unbearably conflicted. It will haunt you long after you finish. I was made to question my stance on immigration, on the foster care system, on the prison system, EVERYTHING. I just wanted a happy ending but in the current state of affairs, there are no clean lines. I can’t recommend this book more, it brought to attention things that you can become callous to when you see the headlines every day, or the stories that are relegated to the back pages and small print. I talk about sides, but can you really take a side? It’s not about sides, it’s about humanity.
This book was such a good read. Emotionally, it had me so torn. I wanted to root for the birth mother, but she was so poor and really had nothing to offer this child other than love. The foster parents who wanted to adopt this child had tried for years to have one of their own. They wanted a child so badly. Yes, they didn't know what to do with it when they got it. Those were some pretty funny days at first. However, they had so much to give that child. A home, a bed, clothes, food, schooling, warmth. Oh, it was just so tough. Thankfully. I didn't have to make that decision. However, I am glad that I did get to go on this journey with Ignacio. While it was a very interesting and eye opening one, I hope I never have to be personally involved in something like this. It's a sad story for both sides. No one ends up winning What a great read, so glad I got the chance, huge thanks to Penguin Group Putnam for approving my request and to Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time. A definite winner!