[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]
At some point, this book was touted as a dystopia and somewhat compared to “The Handmaid’s Tale”, at least in certain blurbs I saw back then, but lest readers approach it thinking they’re going into a dystopian read: it is not (and expecting it to be would probably do it disservice). Or, at least, it’s not more dystopian than the world we currently live in, where you can get everything anyway if you’re wealthy enough (including surrogate mothers).
The story follows four characters: Jane, a naïve Filipina-American girl who gets roped into becoming a “Host” at Golden Oaks (the “Farm” from the title); Ate, her shrewd cousin who is intent on making money in order to take care of her family back in the Philippines; Mae, the Golden Oaks’ director, banking on this new lucrative business to secure her end-of-year bonus; and Reagan, a “Premium Host” who’s been wooed by Mae to carry the child of a billionaire woman from China.
One thing is to be said about Golden Oaks, for starters: it is incredibly believable—if such a place doesn’t already exist somewhere, surely it will exist at some point? A golden prison whose “inmates” submitted themselves voluntarily in exchange for fat money incentives and bonuses, it has a lot of advantages (healthy food, exercise, massages… all in all, quite “privileged” surroundings), but also clearly plays a part in the kind of exploitation that is already going on, when it comes to people (especially of immigrant backgrounds) who can’t be choosers when it comes to jobs.
While it’s not a clear-cut dystopia, the world of “The Farm” nevertheless deals with contemporary problems that do have a whiff of dystopia, namely class and exploitation. Mae and her people (her clients included) go about this with a complete dichotomy of recruiting the Hosts by showing Golden Oaks as a sort of luxury retreat and their role as surrogates as meaningful and contributing to the good in the world… and at the same time, the Hosts are given numbers (not to their faces), and discussed in terms of class and backgrounds. This why Reagan, for instance, is a Premium Host and chosen to carry a very special baby: she’s white, from a clearly upper-middle-class family, she majored cum laude from Duke University, and she’s pretty to boot. Clients can subscribe to different “packages”, and a Reagan will always have more worth than a Jane. At some point, Mae and her boss even discuss introducing a new level, that of impoverished white women from blue-collar families, as a sort of “Premium-at-a-discount”. In itself, it is positively disgusting, and capitalism pushed to a very visible extreme, without any shame. The whole thing is all the more disturbing that Mae’s narrative makes it appear as somewhat sensible: of course, the Hosts are well-compensated—although differently depending on whether they’re Premium or not…
This said, there were a few things that seriously bothered me here:
- The story is told in the third person and in the present tense. I’m not too keen on whole books written this way. It was tolerable, but I can only stomach that much. Probably a case of “it’s not the book, it’s me”, though.
- Jane is clearly of this brand of people who continuously make the worst decisions and choose the worst course of action at the worst moment possible (acknowledged in the novel itself, as Reagan reflects upon this). It makes for plot twists, sure, and it plays into the how the book indeed denounces the exploitation of immigrants, who don’t necessarily know all the “rules” when it comes to becoming part of their host country. Yet at the same time, it made Jane rather worthy of several eye rolls, and also sends some sort of underlying message that, well, she’s so naïve and stupid, so surely it’s her fault for getting into such situations. I’m always on the fence with such characters. I do not want to play the victim blaming game, because that’s rubbish, but it’s not so easy either to find her endearing rather than annoying.
- I’m still not sure of where the story wanted to go. There’s a looming thread of vaguely impending doom through the narrative, as if something really sinister is lurking, but that “something”, in the end, doesn’t materialise, or not the way you would expect. Whatever happens is mostly the product of short-sightedness on the part of the people involved (yes, Mae as well): because they don’t communicate properly, or because they fail to realise that continuously giving incentives to people and then taking them away at the last moment is NOT a good way of ensuring things will go smoothly. The situation unfolding in the last third or so is the result of one huge misunderstanding, and considering the degree of monitoring at Golden Oaks and Mae’s suppose shrewdness, it’s like several people just forgot their brains somewhere at some point. (Ate and her friends are not immune to that either, by the way.)
So, “The Farm” had an important message, but that message wasn’t delivered efficiently through storytelling, which muddled it.
- The characters are rather one-dimensional. Jane is the naïve immigrant who is constantly exploited. Mae is the exploiter and that’s all. Reagan is the typical woke girl struggling with her privilege but not realising that the good she wants to do may just be tainted. Lisa is kinda the resident sex addict and gossipmonger. Apart from these, I’m still not sure who exactly they are.
- The ending was… abrupt? The epilogue dragged a little, while the actual resolution, right before it, pretty much happened behind closed doors.
Conclusion: A good theme to tackle, and chilling when you realise that the way it’s presented makes it appear “sensible” while still underlining its inhuman aspects, so as a reader, you’re never left off the hook in that regard. On the other hand, I found it fell flat, and I never really connected with the characters.
P.S. Regarding the aforementioned comparison with “The Handmaid’s Tale”: publishing houses should stop doing that, because more often than not, it makes me wonder if the people writing those “comparison blurbs” have actually read the book(s) involved. Mostly the common point here is “surrogate mothers”, but “The Farm” never gets to THT’s horrifying level. Let’s be clear here: that’s not a fault of the novel, which is still interesting in its own ways. But I feel such comparisons do harm, since more than just one reader will pick the book because of this comparison, and consequently be disappointed.