How does nine months at a luxury property in upstate New York, with a pool, media suite, library (!!!), complementary therapies, organic food and all for free sound? Pretty dreamy right? Well that is what visitors to Golden Oaks get to enjoy, and they are paid to do so, provided that they are willing to dedicate themselves to producing the perfect baby for the well-heeled and wealthy.
This retreat, which is set to transform the fertility industry, is the brainchild of the ambitious Mae Yu. The women who inhabit the retreat are largely immigrants or those in desperate need of the freedom which the generous payments for a healthy delivery provide.
So we meet Jane, a Filipino who has recently given birth herself. Leaving her baby in the care of her aunt Ate, she begins her life at Golden Oaks to make a better future for her family. How can she refuse the bonus promised by Mae, which gives more money and security than she could hope to make working the other jobs available to her – such as becoming a cleaner, cook or “baby nanny” to the same upper class families. But is everything at the Retreat as it seems?
Mae meticulously selects the “Hosts” based on their genetic background and psychological profiles for her “gestational retreat” – often to satisfy the whims of her clients. And what about the treatment of those “Hosts”? Well they get the best of everything because “a stable and happy Host produces a healthy baby, which produces a … Satisfied Client. ” This can even mean lying or manipulating hosts, using their motivations to ensure they keep in line. For Jane this means being denied access to her daughter.
As Mae loses her grip on Jane and the other Hosts (and becomes less able to placate her rich clients) you wonder if she might have extended herself a little too far.
There is no getting away from the Atwood-ian inspiration behind this novel. Whilst religion and right-wing conservatism might be the enemy in The Handmaid’s Tale it is capitalism that Joanne Ramos takes aim at. This isn’t a hard hitting dystopian tale but it’s an unnerving step up from the existing surrogacy and hiring of nannies by the super rich. Ramos shows us how easy it is for the most vulnerable women in society to be taken advantage of, to be manipulated by those with means and to be left teetering on the edge of survival.
This is why this doesn’t feel too far fetched.
Ramos herself discusses what motivated her to write The Farm towards the end of the book:
In many ways, The Farm is a culmination of a running dialogue I’ve had with myself …about just desserts and lick, assimilation and otherness, class and family and sacrifice … I hope The Farm might serve as a window to the “other” side of these divides …”
Yes the ending feels a little contrite and there were so many more angles which Ramos could have explored as some other writers have in their recent dystopian works. However this story works because it is so realistic, no seismic shifts have to occur in the socio-economic or political climate. There is no despotic leader or group who force their will on those who are less fortunate. Just human greed capitalism and the question of how far you would go to have or to protect your family.
No Aunt Lydias, eyes or Handmaids here – just ordinary people who become Hosts or Co-Ordinators. Instead we see the disparity which is so apparent in society taken to an extreme – how luck seems to come to those who are already affluent and how those who are “other” or outside society can easily be taken advantage of.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. We see the power of female friendship, how it can cross cultures and classes. This is an easy and enjoyable read which will give you something to think about.