Pairings Project: SECRET LIVES OF MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS by Anita Kushwaha
TLDR; The Secret Lives is a story of adoption and motherhood that is as beautiful, compassionate, and as hopeful as it is heartbreaking.
Minor thematic spoilers follow.
In THE SECRET LIVES OF MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS, Author Anita Kushwaha tackles one of the most complex and complicated connections between women: the relationship between mother and daughter. It is a deep dive into those relationships, from multiple angles, and involving some incredibly complex, but beautifully written characters.
Readers are introduced to Asha, a young woman on the verge of adulthood who learns a devastating secret. On her birthday, Asha's mother Nandini gives her a letter written eighteen years ago, by Asha's birth mother. The reveal of her adoption sends Asha into a deep dive into her own identity, what motherhood means, and why people keep secrets from the people they love the most.
Asha's journey parallels her birth mother's own story, as an alternative narrative reveals Mala, a young woman dealing with her own questions about identity as well as the obligations one owes to family, culture and society. Mala struggles to reconcile her independent aspirations for a career and a life of her own, as well as romantic feelings for a fellow grad student with her desire to please her traditional mother. When her mother suggests an arranged marriage Mala has to balance her own desires for modern independence and romantic love with her cultural upbringing and love of her mother.
Author Kushwaha handles these difficult themes and questions with nuance and compassion. The characters are all so beautifully written that you truly care for them and their struggles. The parallels of these women's lives show the heavy questions women deal with across generations. Despite very different temperaments, immediate contexts, and, ultimately, responses, both Mala and Asha find comfort and guidance in their personal connections with Brontë's Jane Eyre. When Mala weighs an offer of an arranged marriage, she compares to an offer to Jane: "Not the thrill of passion but the comforts of a peaceful household. The freedom to live one's life. A commitment to be respectful friends. Close to the offer St. John had offered Jane." These literary connections ground the lives of Mala and Asha in familiar literature and draw parallels in the lives women have lived for centuries. Things may have changed between the generations, but not that much.
THE SECRET LIVES also tackles mental illness. From grief and anxiety to depression and post partum, the characters all struggle in their own ways with the pressures of society, culture, and family. Kushwaha approaches each woman's path individually, but draws parallels that allow you to empathize and relate to each one. There is heartbreak throughout the story for all of the characters, but there is a lot of hope and healing along the way.
One of the subtle things Kushwaha has done is with the names of her characters. There’s the oft-noted fact that Asha’s name means hope, and as the central daughter that ties together all of the women in the story, it’s a fitting name. But then there’s the themes that string together the other characters. For instance, the characters that are not Indian all have tree-based names: Willow, Rowan, Ash Groves, connecting them all together across timelines through their names if nothing else. Love is a prevailing them in the names as well: Prem—love and affection, Nandini—joy and delight, and even the last name Sharma—joyfulness. Then there’s Mala, which means garland, and Sumesh, Lord of flowers, and how those names connect them is something I won’t spoil here. The clever ways Kushwaha has weaved these names and themes throughout the story so deftly and subtly, I didn’t even catch their significance until the final pages. It’s a testament to Kushwaha’s skills that the symbolism is so strong and yet so subconscious as to nearly be missed.
Ultimately, THE SECRET LIVES is a beautiful and compassionate story about adoption, identity, and motherhood. It's a story of women, in all their tragedy, potential, and beauty.
TLDR; THE SECRET LIVES is beautiful, compassionate, and as hopeful as it is heartbreaking.
Cocktail Pairing Follows:
I had a hard time with this cocktail pairing. As much as I loved the book, the characters are all so wildly different, and nothing seemed to capture the universal struggle of “Motherhood” in a cocktail. When I looked up “Mother cocktails” I was inundated with Bloody Mary’s, mimosa variations, and various sweet sweet wine cocktails. Not what is evoked by this book.
So I went to my trusty cocktail book. The Ultimate Bar Book has over a thousand recipes, and I’ve had some good luck with them. Since the author had confessed she had a special place in her palate for gin drinks, I started there. Then, there it was!
The Rose Martini.
In a crucial scene, Mala has her favorite dessert made with rose water, the taste of which sticks with her, and in a sense haunts her, throughout the book. Though I hope this cocktail doesn’t haunt you through significant moments of your life, I hope the impact of this book will. (It’s that good!)
So to give you a bit of that rose water ghost, I give you, the Rose Martini.
2.5 oz high quality gin (New Amsterdam, Hendricks, don’t go for a London dry or it will taste off with the rose water)
Dash of cointreau
Several dashes of rose water
Mix ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with rose petals. (I didn’t have roses on hand, so I garnished with a maraschino cherry.)