I read The Farm expecting a Handmaid’s Tale-type dystopia. I expected a world where women are reduced to baby-making machines and must rise up against an oppressive patriarchy to regain their freedom. I was interested in the book because of the Filipina immigrant main character (Jane, a young single mother who lives in a boarding house with her baby and her cousin Ate Evelyn), but otherwise, I thought this would be yet another dystopia in a long line of the genre. Fortunately, I was proven wrong.
The Farm absolutely blew me away. It’s not so much a dystopia as it is a character study, of how the same set of circumstances can have such a wide variety of impact on the people involved. The novel delves into questions of race, income disparity, family connections, and what it means to be an immigrant far from loved ones back home. I fell in love with the characters, was fully riveted by their stories, and found it hard to put this book down. The Farm is easily one of my favourite novels of the year.
The novel revolves around Golden Oaks, a resort for women who are hired to be surrogates for wealthy families. Some of the women like to believe they’re participating in a higher calling — providing the gift of parenthood for families who cannot otherwise have children — but most of the women are simply in more desperate life circumstances and require the money. As an unemployed single mother, Jane realizes that this job could help her gain the financial stability she so desperately wants for her daughter, and jumps at the chance when Ate Evelyn suggests it. Once she’s at Golden Oaks however, Jane realizes that being away from her daughter is much harder than she imagined, even with her daughter in Ate Evelyn’s more than capable care. And she also gets caught up in events that may make keeping her job more complicated than she anticipated. Her emotions are raw and intense, and very relatable to readers who may need to make personal sacrifices to provide for loved ones.
What makes this novel so powerful however is that Ramos doesn’t just limit us to Jane’s experience. Rather, we also see the perspective of Reagan, an idealistic college graduate who wants to become independent from her wealthy family. Because Reagan is white and highly educated, she is considered a ‘premium’ host, meaning that wealthy families are willing to pay more to have her bear their child. Beyond that, she is also treated as a VIP among the hosts, and Golden Oaks director Mae Yu goes to great lengths to keep Reagan happy and feeling like she’s contributing to a greater cause. I love that Ramos delves right into the racism at Golden Oaks, and outright tells us that clients prefer white hosts, but due to financial need, there are many more Black and Latinx hosts available. Reagan, along with other ‘premium’ host Lisa, are able to get away with much more in terms of rebellious behaviour than hosts who are women of colour can. I also find it telling that Jane’s relative lack of power at Golden Oaks isn’t so much a factor of race (Asian hosts are relatively high on clients’ wish lists), as it is her limited financial and social supports. So I love how Ramos explores the intersectionality of her characters’ identities.
The novel also gives us the perspective of Mae Yu, the Chinese American director of the resort, and I love that Ramos doesn’t fall into the easy way of making Mae purely a villain. She does go to great lengths to keep her hosts in line, and amongst the characters, she’s the most overt about seeing the hosts as assets more than as women (even the clients at least pretend to care about the hosts’ humanity). But we also see how hard Mae has to fight to earn her place at the mostly white and male networks of power. Her ambitions constantly come up against structural inequalities, and throughout the novel, we feel how tenuous her grasp on power is. There’s a trace of desperation and fear in even her most ruthless plans, and while she never quite becomes a ‘good guy,’ she remains a sympathetic character.
Finally, Ramos also gives us Ate Evelyn’s point of view. Of the four narrators, Ate Evelyn is perhaps the one most straddling the line between hero and villain. We see her love for her family, and we also see her willingness to cross ethical boundaries for some extra cash. We learn her backstory, about the family she left behind in the Philippines and still needs to support, and ultimately, the impression she leaves is that of a complex, flawed, and wholly sympathetic human being.
The best dystopias do highlight the human element, and in that, perhaps The Farm is a dystopia after all. But while it tackles some urgent and relevant subjects, the overall tone doesn’t have the urgent call to action that many contemporary dystopias do. Rather, The Farm invites readers to linger, to delve deep and fully experience every moment we have with these characters. The women in this novel are all wonderfully flawed and human, and also somewhat heroic in their own ways. It’s a heart-wrenching, thought-provoking, powerful novel. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.