Like many “dystopian feminist” titles released over the past few years, I think Joanne Ramos’s The Farm suffers from its Handmaid’s Tale comparisons. Fortunately, I think it has plenty to offer in its own right.
In the novel, Jane, a US immigrant from the Philippines, has recently left her husband and must now care for their newborn daughter alone. When her elderly cousin, Ate, must leave a baby-nursing job due to failing health, Jane is persuaded to take Ate’s place; thus begins her career of caring for the babies of the rich in order to provide for her own small family. When Jane must leave that first job, Ate finds her another- this time as a surrogate mother at a facility where women are paid to carry and birth the babies of those who can afford to outsource their pregnancies.
The first thing to know about The Farm is that it is not, in fact, dystopian. Though Golden Oaks (“The Farm”) is fictional, we do currently live in a world where the wealthy can pay other women to carry their babies to term. Furthermore, I’m not even sure I would call this a feminist book, as Ramos herself admits that she’s not trying to make any particular point with this story:
“I didn’t write [The Farm] to come up with answers, because I don’t have them. Instead, the book is meant to explore- for myself, and hopefully for its readers, too- questions of who we are, what we cherish, and how we see those who are different from ourselves.“
As such, I think this book is a huge success.
It follows four main characters- Jane, Ate, Reagan (another surrogate mom), and Mae (head of the Golden Oaks facility). Several other significant characters are introduced and play their own tangential roles, but all of these women- even the other three perspective characters- primarily serve to add depth to Jane’s situation. And yet, though each fulfils a specific role and may seem at first a stereotypical representation of the viewpoint they embody, all are nuanced and distinct. Their motivations differ wildly, and yet even as they act in opposition it seems that each is making the only logical choice available to them. The clincher is that there really is no obvious judgment one way or the other; The Farm‘s greatest strength is that it presents so many facets of a delicate issue while also leaving readers plenty of room to form their own opinions.
What is this “difficult situation,” this “delicate issue?” At heart, it is the question of legality vs. morality, especially when it comes to women’s bodies. When Jane agrees to become a surrogate for a Golden Oaks Client, she signs a contract stating that she will care for the Client’s child to the best of her ability. The leaders of Golden Oaks have some ideas about what this means- living in a secure environment, eating particular healthy foods, attending mandatory exercise classes and weekly ultrasounds, etc. But when the “Host” and baby inhabit the same body, where does one draw the line between the Host’s own rights and the Client’s right to dictate their baby’s care?
” ‘Fetal security’ is Ms. Yu’s excuse, although Lisa insists it’s a ruse, a way to keep the Hosts ignorant, because then they’re easier to control.”
The greatest conflict arises when Jane wishes to prioritize her own child’s well-being, while the Golden Oaks folks cannot allow anything to sabotage the well-being of their Client’s child. While searching for middle ground, Jane and Mae push each other nearly to their breaking points.
But the commentary does not begin and end with the complications of surrogacy. Jane, Ate, and many of the Hosts are immigrants struggling with poverty, and Golden Oaks, all specifics of its business aside, is attached to a big corporation that is either helping with or taking advantage of their precarious positions- another moral quandary. Jane cannot afford proper housing and needs money in a hurry; is she in a position to decline questionable business propositions? Furthermore, is she in a position to recognize when she is being taken advantage of?
“She always said the worst thing you can do to a child is raise it with too much softness, because the world is hard. But Jane is not sure. There are people who move through the world like they own it, and the world seems to bend to their demands.”
The Farm is a conceptual story, meant to enlighten and test the boundaries of perspective. It doesn’t have a busy plot, because plot is not the driving force of the novel. In fact, I found the plot completely transparent, especially at its climax. The book doesn’t particularly encourage readers to develop a sense of emotional closeness with the characters over the course of the story either, as not even they are the driving force. And yet, despite the lack of those two main elements that often make or break my reading experiences, I was absolutely hooked from beginning to end. I loved the dialogue, the complex relationships and myriad confrontations within, and most of all the repeated shocks of the many ways in which women are used, allow themselves to be used, and continue to use each other. Ramos has done a stellar job with this one.
” ‘You’re letting a rich stranger use you. You’re putting a price tag on something integral–‘ “
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had a few minor issues, mainly with the predictability of the plot, but ultimately I was excited to continue every time I picked the book up again and thought about it constantly when forced to put it down. This story could easily have been sensationalized, but never felt heavy-handed. There are no clear villains and no clear solutions, though The Farm certainly raises a lot of questions. I would absolutely read more from this author.
Hilarious side note: it took me longer than I’d like to admit to realize that the shapes on this cover are probably the vague silhouettes of pregnant women; until I really thought about it, they looked to me like the edges of violins…
The Literary Elephant