* Spoilers will be in this review. I will be talking about the main characters and their plotlines. I will be talking about specific plot points. Pivotally, I will be talking about the resolution of the characters. I will discuss the aftermath of the main character as it is a source of contention for me. So if you do not want spoilers for The Farm by Joanne Ramos, please stop reading now. *
I read the description of The Farm in a round-up of new releases for summer 2019, I thought the concept sounded interesting. This is Ms. Ramos’ first novel but it reads more like a first draft than an edited release in hardback by Random House Books.
If it were my call, I wouldn’t have gambled on a print release. Opting for an ebook first with a threshold for print of this version. I am making an assumption book companies do something like that, I could be wrong. I am not in the publishing industry and never have been.
One thing I want to address early is, this is not a dystopian story, in my opinion. This article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/may/12/the-farm-joanne-ramos-review asserts it is. In fact to me, it isn’t really akin to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which is reliant on the unexplained war that changed America forming Gilead. There are no hallmarks of a dystopian story like a major event, war, disease, famine, tragedy or anything that indicates it is anything other than modern day United States with a flashback to the Philippines when one character is younger. In that respect, I agree with this review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Ay5hJFjySM from about 1:00 to 2:10. I believe this story happens in modern day America, as is.
Instead this is a treatise on how the ultra-rich handle most things, they outsource to someone of lesser means. Usually we see this in the form of cleaning, driving or other menial tasks. In this case, the subject matter is breeding. One indicator is the addition of a fictional magazine mentioned on page 55 “How To Spend It”. The poor people in this story have nothing to spend so this is obviously aimed at the rich. The Author’s note at the end of the talks about Ms. Ramos motivations to write the book and I think they are valid. But it falls short of truly proposing a solution to the problems mentioned. Resulting in the same economic inequities from start to finish.
Well enough bloviating, let’s get to the story review.
There should only be 2 point of view (POV) characters, Jane and Mae. This would make for an ironic juxtaposition for the 2 Asian American women, one Filipina the other Chinese both American. Edifying the deep fissures that can arise from differences in upbringing. Pushing to forefront the amount of hope each possesses to progress in society. That along with economic opportunities that can be the difference in people’s lives, in my opinion.
Jane Reyes is the main character. I would normally say protagonist however the antagonist is really just the economic system and its treatment of woman, not an actual character. Jane is the embodiment of not being to get ahead. I disagree with many reviews I have read, Jane does not have a happy ending. Through it all, Jane has to care for her daughter all alone, although no reason is given why that is.
Jane is the daughter of an American male servicemember and a teenage Phillipine woman. There is no indication whether her father knew he was leaving her mother pregnant or not. But we know her mother left Jane with her grandmother to raise. When the grandmother dies, Jane comes to stay with her mother in America, more on that in a minute. Jane leaves with her eventual husband Billy, almost nothing more on that in the book, ending up in New York City.
With regards to Jane’s mother, she could have gotten to the U.S. a tiny bit easier with Jane in tow. Jane is a U.S. Citizen since her father is. It would not have made either one’s life easier to be together in these circumstances with few prospects. But would have been easier to explain. As is, I can’t see how either woman got to the U.S. and it is not addressed as a potential problem.
The other main character, Mae Yu comes from a loving though slightly controlling two parent household. Through struggles and tough times, they all persevere to maintain an upper middle class lifestyle. And Mae is an archetype for the strong modern woman.
Mae is the main character with a decent life. She could be the antagonist but I really don’t think she is as written. She is Holloway Club’s & Corporate America’s embodiment. Mae engineers the expansion of the ultra-rich baby making enterprise. Still I am not sure she is against Jane per se. They do happen to be on opposite sides. And in the end, that is more evident than ever but I will get to that.
Evelyn “Ate” Arroyo is the third POV character but she should not be. Ate is Jane’s cousin who is much older. Though not explicitly stated, I believe Ate’s children are older than Jane. Only one thing of consequence happens to her in the story that is when she gets sick and can’t care for Amalia, Jane’s daughter. But that could have all happened from Jane’s point of view. And point of fact, we only find out from Jane so, why is Ate a POV character?
As a reader, I am really only in vested in the impact to Jane directly and Mae indirectly. I am unsure why Ate has been given a POV for this story. I believe it is to talk about her children left back in the Philippines which have almost no significance to the main story. Her sidekick Angel is equally unimportant to the actual story as a story filled with Filipino women who are only pawns for the rich. None actually get ahead including Ate’s one daughter who is a medical professional (which kind I am not sure though and not re-reading to figure it out either).
It really paints life in the Philippines in a terrible light. Only one of her four children is a decent human being. And there seem to be no good fathers in the author’s birthplace. Life their is depicted as bleak in every sense. With an economic sector dependent on the salaries of ex-pats. Leaving a precarious child rearing system.
In the end, the way to tell Ate is not a main character, there is no disposition of her character by the end of the story. Is she sick and alive? Is she dead? Not sure When Jane leaves her in the hospital, her story is left as well. Mae and Jane mention what will happen if she dies but don’t actually mention if that has occurred.
Same can be said about the significance of Reagan McCarthy the fourth and last POV character. Her “voice” is unnecessary. It does not add to the narrative in a substantive way. She is a fleshed out character, more so than the equally uninteresting Lisa. Though we know what happens to Reagan in the end, is it really interesting? I don’t think so. Nothing happens to her that couldn’t be talked about from either Mae or Jane’s perspective.
One thing that stood out to me is the treatment of men in this book. In contrast to most stories, the men are only there to window dress the women. Trophies. Few actually move the story along in any measurable way. They have very few speaking roles and only to further the women stories.
The book would not pass a “male- version” of the Bechdel-Wallace test. I can’t think of another book I read that would fail this particular way. Plenty fail the actual Bechdel-Wallace test where females are the trophies. It is interesting to see on the other side. Particularly when men set up the systems that ensure the women in these stories don’t get ahead. I am not sure if this is intentional or not; it is unique to my recollection. Possibly this is the reason the project was green-lit to begin with.
Male characters are named though, unlike failures of the Bechdel-Wallace test. First names only it seems. I can’t remember an instance of a Male having a last name. Two can be intuitively guessed which are Mae’s and Reagan’s fathers but we don’t get their first names. The men we meet are:
Billy- Jane’s husband (ex by the end of the book) and Amalias father. Total deadbeat.
Leon- Mae’s boss at Hollaway. Possibly the only true antagonist as the male embodiment of economic ultra greed as Holloway’s CEO.
Ethan- Mae’s boyfriend turned husband. He is the only male depicted as actually decent. He is an actually loving partner to Mae. Probably the best representative for the male of the species.
Troy- Lisa’s artist boyfriend and sexual release. Does one thing that is problematic and another that is helpful.
Julio- Lisa’s partner in crime and other sexual release.
Fatherhood really takes a beating in this story. Jane’s father leaves, possibly ignorant, though that does not assuage his fault and guilt. Jane’s husband Billy is wholly absent. Ate’s husband Miguel leaves unexplained. Reagan’s father is controlling and somewhat concerned. At least he advocates financial independence while keeping Reagan’s mother as a liberal trophy wife. Mae’s father goes against type of the scheming Asian, instead capitulating to his social climbing American wife.
Ethan, Mae’s fiancee then husband, seems like a good dude. Seems like he is an attentive father though just fine with having a nanny. Same might be said of the unnamed father of Lisa’s 3 surrogate babies. The later libertarian is reasonable when Lisa is caught in a compromising position with Julio. So there are at least 2 decent guys in the story.
There are lots of ironic things that happen. Like when Ate falls ill, she is not fit enough to care for The Carters baby Henry. But she is “sick” enough to watch Amalia. This is a true inequality highlighted by the economic realities of the parents. It is simply what the market demands.
And because Ate’s fate was left unresolved, why not kill her? Because no rational person thinks keeping Amalia from Jane is a good plan. What if instead Ate makes a plan for someone to take over and that person loses Jane’s contact information? That seems plausible.
Instead, Angel takes over for Ate. Angel knows Jane. Moreover she knows what Amalia means to Jane. And Angel keeps Ate’s illness from Jane. But the reader is supposed to believe it when on page 291 Angel explains everything to Mae, a stranger, what happened to Ate. But Angel and Ate left Jane in the dark for a week or more? That does not even remotely make sense.
It is the first of many things that don’t track. One thing I won’t fully spoil but was fishy to start is Reagan’s client Callie. Callie is a black woman who pays a premium price for a white host? This was fishy as soon as I heard it on page 181.
Same with the WellBands at Golden Oaks. They are like a Fitbit with the convenience of Disney MagicBands in the park. Same catch as with Disney, the wearer is giving away information whether knowingly or not. From the start, the WellBands are used as a control measure. A shackle even if it looks nicer. Along with the limited access to the outside world, the bands make it much more like a prison than a privilege to help other people with fertility issues.
Same with the fact that Reagan gets her bonus but Jane doesn’t. Why? There is no reason for it as both were a part of the “plan” for Jane to sneak to NYC. Along with Lisa too. And just as a business point, there is no way they did not charge the same for both babies, both of whom were born healthy. And the withholding of Jane’s bonus is punitive only to her. Since news isn’t used to keep the other hosts in line. Probably.
But one circumstance where the bonus does matter, Jane is still in dire straits financially. Mae, if she took the money and withheld it from Jane a fellow Asian American and not Reagan a white American, it is nefarious enough. Mae than uses that to leverage Jane into being a personal host for her and Ethan’s baby. Further into being Victor’s baby-nurse. Controlling Jane in a way if it was intentional does make Mae the true antagonist. But it might simply be circumstantial.
Still Mae has to understand the undo influence she has on Jane’s life. Moreover on Amalia’s who Mae seems to be encouraging to do what Mae says not Jane. But I wonder how Henry will treat Amalia when they get older. Will Mae encourage Amalia’s self-reliant streak then? There is your sequel right there.
Before moving on though, another good storyline that was ignored; I would like to have seen what happens if Jane does get the money. What than? She has no real plans for the windfall. She likely does not know what to do with it. There was never going to be a happy ending for Jane.
Don’t believe me. Let’s look at Jane’s fate without the money. She is somewhat stable by the end but not at all ahead. Still working for a living. Divorced but somehow doesn’t have to share custody, money she made during the marriage nor does it appear she gets any child support for Amalia. She has the same skills but no degree. And ultimately at Mae’s whim. So much so that Jane gets recycled into being a host back-to-back for Mae. Coming out of the experience with 2 more sets of stretch marks and not much more in the way of economic stability or resources.
There are no classes on economics at Golden Oaks for anyone. No career management assistance for the hosts. No real help for the hosts after the birth and recovery. Mae talks about having hosts return multiple times which is all Holloway cares about.
So are the women getting ahead by being hosts? The true measure is the fact that Lisa is having her third baby. Why? Isn’t she supposedly getting a hefty sum from her libertarian, Ivy league clients? Lisa is obviously not altruistic or philanthropic. But even if she is not premium (my guess), as a white female can’t she charge more? At least enough to not have to do it 3 times? Seems no is the answer.
In fact Reagan, a Duke graduate, does not know what to do with her bonus either. Reagan gets her MFA in photography, like Mae directs her to implicitly. Still Reagan insists on living an “authentic” life over a prosperous one. Instead of making money to full her passions, she dedicates her time to publishing the inequity of life. Kind of like the author. Ate is either near death or dead. And Reagan could be dependent on her father soon enough.
No one ever talks about how much money anyone is actually getting. We are told it is a lot. But a lot is relative but so is the concept of enough. Jane’s enough would be very different from Lisa’s or Reagan’s. None of them seem to be comfortable after being hosts. Most of the reviews I have YouTubed or read don’t truly question why none of them are comfortable by the end.
Mae’s story is just the rich getting richer. Seems like she is gunning for her boss’ job. About half way through the book, we find out Mae’s own employee Becca is aiming for Mae’s job as well. Same with the Dr Wilde and Geri, but neither is truly talented. But is Mae’s job stable? The story shows the many crises that can arise from this form of captive surrogacy which the company is expanding in the epilogue. It is a dog eat dog world that is not much more stable for Mae, a new mother. At least she has Ethan who seems to be somewhat stable.
Would have been more interesting if there was some adversity. One of the babies has a trisomy, a potential birth defect, and is aborted. That could make for a twist. Or bring in hosts from another country and make them actually rich when they return. Something to really move the needle.
But so much is thrown away. The baby with trisomy is aborted. Mentions of Macy, Reagan’s roommate, are complete by about page 200. Julio after his transgression which makes him much more likely to break his confidentiality. And even Ate’s fate is unknown, a POV character. I don’t appreciate this as the reader.
Also I wonder if there is any significance to the character names. Jane Reyes initial JR just like the authors. And Reagan McCarthy I wonder if there is a link to Ronald Reagan and Joseph McCarthy or just a coincidence? Angel saves Amalia at her time of need. Not sure if any of this is intentional or not.
Honestly the intentions of the author are hard to determine. I tend to think some of the things I pointed out are circumstantial. It would be a better story if they were intentional. I would appreciate if these situation led the characters to a bigger purpose.
While not dystopia, this is a bleak story. With many of our characters in much the same position as when they start the story. So it really only serves as a testament to the power of the ultra-rich to manipulate the lower classes. Which is why I am baffled by how many reviews are positive about the novel. Reviews like:
1. Caffeinated Bookworm : mentioned above.
2. Acacia Ives: She calls it dystopian, multiple times I believe, which it isn’t. And she talks about Golden Oaks being for wealthy white couples when Jane’s baby is for a nonwhite couple along with 7 other hosts.
3. Mspeace23: decent analysis.
4. Read Remark: gets a bit more in depth on the economics.
5. Zews Reading Corner a little too cheery for my taste.
In the end, the story was a 2.5 out of 5 stars. For everything I grumble about with the characters, structure and story are not terrible. In fact, the subject matter is fresh. I was educated about the plight of Filipina immigrants to this country. I feel it could have been more polished. There really isn’t any twist or tragedy for the story to pivot on. Having Mae continuing to gain steam as a new mom and Jane still in ever-present dire straits but holding stable is blaise. There are some close calls (the tick, cancer, the escape) but not many meaningful changes happen in the story to our two main characters. Would be a much better story if something did occur to change the paradigm. Maybe in the sequel?
I would like to see a sequel where Jane tries to break out of her economic situation. Mae tries to hold on to her own. Maybe they end up working together? Possibly told through the eyes of their kids who are at private school together? Second hand seeing each struggle. Would be interesting that way. But probably easier to write it straight up with Jane and Mae instead of Amalia and Victor.
Shall see what happens.
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