Shanthi Sekaran’s novel “Lucky Boy”, the story of an undocumented immigrant who is separated from her child, is set in genteel upper-middle- class Berkeley. Sekaran will appear Jan. 17 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Shanthi Sekaran’s graceful novel “Lucky Boy” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 480 pp., $27) is a tale of two mothers. One of them, Soli, is a teenager from an impoverished Mexican town who survives a harrowing passage across the border to find herself in Berkeley: pregnant, undocumented and working as a housekeeper. The other, Kavya, is an Indian-American woman in her thirties, living a contented and comfortable life with her affectionate husband, Rishi, but wanting something else. “She’d come to Berkeley to find herself, but found that her self was not enough. She wanted a self of her self. She wanted a child.”
That Soli and Kavya’s lives will collide is clear from the book’s earliest pages, but Sekaran, in her second novel, takes her time before letting their fates cross. Soli dominates the book’s first half, as her terrible journey unfolds in a harsh, cinematic light (four men conceivably could be the baby’s father, only one of them consensually), and her arrival in Berkeley at her cousin’s home seems like a wash of new color. Every breath seems “carbonated, almost, when a dizzying gust blew in from the ocean”; everyone she sees seems happy and “as healthy as humans could be.”
Soli finds work, quietly observing the strange customs of an upper-middle-class Berkeley family of three. She considers herself their home’s “day nurse, and without her, it would have suffocated, forgotten, beneath the Cassidy’s colonies of material possessions.” In one of the book’s wryly funny passages, her employer urges her to make a “birth plan,” the idea of which would have never occurred to anyone in Soli’s hometown of Santa Clara Popocalco. “Soli’s birth plan was to wail and curse herself and lament her womanly burden until the baby found its own way out.”
The author of “Lucky Boy” will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
Her child, Ignacio, is born, bringing with him a reservoir of love and hope for an easier life one day. And then, the inevitable happens: Soli’s undocumented status is discovered, and in a nightmare blur she is separated from the child she calls Nacho and taken to a detention center. Kavya and Rishi, infertile and ready to try fostering — “adoption’s slimmer cousin” — take in the dark-eyed toddler. They call him Iggy, and fall hopelessly in love.
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It’s a story that feels torn from current headlines, and the deck is undoubtedly stacked: Soli, without question, is Ignacio’s mother. But Sekaran writes movingly of Kavya and the child she adores, how “before long, it would not have occurred other that his skin was not her skin.” Drunk with motherhood, she tries not to let herself think of the woman who, somewhere, yearns for this child. Kavya had, we’re told, “made a mansion of her love, but built it on shifting land.”
“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 — contemporary Berkeley, or, rather, two different versions of it — from its characters’ eyes. And its descriptions of the emotional rush of parenthood are often strikingly lovely. Rishi, whose affection for Iggy takes him by surprise, runs a wondering finger along the child’s arm, “the skin so soft that Rishi grew vertiginous, as if fingering the edge of a towering cliff.”