G.P. Putnam’s Sons
January 10, 2017
Lucky Boy is a lush and poignant tale about two different mothers who are in love with the same baby boy, Ignacio. Solimar Castro-Valdez, a young undocumented Mexican immigrant working as a maid/nanny in Berkeley, California, is the biological mother of Ignacio. Kavya Reddy is an Indian thirty-something caterer in Berkeley who seems to have everything: an entrepreneurial husband, a bungalow, and a solid job, but the one aspect she feels she’s failed at (and failed her family and culture at) is conceiving a child of her own. When Solimar is suddenly arrested and placed in immigrant detention, Ignacio is taken away and lands in the adoptive care of Kavya and her husband Rishi. So begins the story of Ignacio, a boy loved by two mothers — one who desperately wants to keep him, and the other who will do anything to get him back.
In many ways Lucky Boy is a beautiful novel, buoyed along by Sekaran’s ability to infuse heartbreak and longing into every sentence. Long before Ignacio even shows up, Sekaran paints us portraits of Solimar, Kavya, and Rishi in painstaking detail. They’re all at once lovable and flawed: Solimar is hardworking but sometimes impetuous; Kavya is determined but prone to jealousy and moments of frailty; Rishi is loyal but unintentionally neglectful.
While Kavya and Solimar, two opposing forces, are presented to us without bias on Sekaran’s part — indeed, the most difficult part of the novel is deciding who is “right,” or if anybody is — the tale really centers around Solimar, whose point-of-view chapters bookend the novel. Without Solimar there is no Ignacio, and arguably without Ignacio there is no Kavya who finds her place in the world.
Solimar is Sekaran’s window into an immigrant experience that many Americans are aware of but likely unfamiliar with. We see the perilous journey that young undocumented immigrants embark on, the constant spectre of uncertainty they learn to live with once they arrive, and the terrifying immigration detention system that puts them into cells next to convicted criminals and works to keep them there. Sekaran does not shy away from any of this: the hopes, fears, smells, sights, abuses, and kindnesses are all laid bare, making it an often all-too-raw reading experience. But somehow Sekaran weaves all these together artfully to create a three dimensional Solimar: both a survivor and victim, a protagonist yet antagonist to Kavya and sometimes even to herself.
I’m not knowledgeable enough to speak on the accuracy of Solimar’s experiences, but I can say Sekaran treats the story with empathy and care. Based on the ending acknowledgements, Sekaran went to great lengths to research and interview for the topic of illegal immigration. This should not have to be a positive I feel compelled to mention, and yet it seems all too often we get authors writing outside their own experiences without proper attention paid to research and sensitivity reads.
And of course, running alongside the story of immigration is a deep discussion about motherhood, how it’s both a blessing and a terrible curse — compared, at one point, to the One Ring in Lord of the Rings. Through Solimar we explore conversations of young motherhood out of wedlock, and the shame that might bring onto a family. We learn about the endless hunger a woman feels when pregnant and how a baby feels like a beast inside her. With Kavya, we explore the pressures society — and traditional Asian families, in particular — put on a married woman to conceive, and the depression and shame that follows when she’s unable to. Sekaran excels at portraying the nuances of this.
There’s also a specificity to the novel that I love. As someone who went to school at UC Berkeley and now lives in San Francisco, the descriptions of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto (that it’s not a “ghetto” at all), the Bay Area startup culture, and the fact that San Franciscans always dress like they’re ready to head to the mountains all felt hilariously accurate.
And yet Lucky Boy, for all its eloquence and detail, feels somehow unfinished. With the amount of time Sekaran takes to craft the characters, the plot is unable to match that same level of detail. It feels as if the novel ends suddenly, with many issues left unresolved. Perhaps that’s not a drawback, and the journey matters much more than the destination; but after 480 pages, I also didn’t expect to feel this incomplete.
There are also things that happen in the third act that are maybe too convenient to believe. Sure, fiction is never completely realistic, but it does have to remain within the bounds that the author has created in order to maintain it’s own sense of realism. Unfortunately, the ending feels like it employs a bit of a deus ex machina.
And one has to wonder about the title: is Ignacio lucky, really? It’s a hard question, made all the more difficult because the novel offers no easy answer. Torn between two mothers and two households with his trauma detailed in the third act, one has to wonder.
All in all, Lucky Boy is a thoughtful novel with arresting characters but a simple and perhaps too predictable plot. The well-crafted prose is enough to recommend it, and while it lasts it’s certainly a beautiful journey.