Anita Kushwaha’s Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters is stuffed full. It gives us a prologue, an epilogue, seventy-nine chapters, and multiple sections with titles like “Fools, Fancies and Fate.” There are letters and journal entries, and we meet several interconnected families, two of whom dominate the narrative. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Asha and Mala, who are richly drawn, full of agony, heart, and propulsive desire. While there are noteworthy threads on cultural baggage, the toll of family and motherhood, and the capacity of love to heal, the many literary mechanisms competing for attention end up diffusing the power of the book.
Asha begins the novel at the intersection of several major life events: she is turning eighteen, graduating from high school in Ottawa, and in her first serious relationship. By the end of the opening chapter, her parents have revealed a secret that will send her into an existential tailspin: she was adopted. We join Mala as she navigates her romantic feelings for her friend Ash and her sense of obligation toward her mother, Veena, and to her culture — a conflict that surfaces with the prospect of an arranged marriage. While readers might (rightly) cringe at another arranged marriage story, the experience is carefully layered, offering sincere insight into the thinking behind the practice without falling into cliché. We are not shielded from the unfairness of the cultural expectation, but Mala retains her agency throughout.
Kushwaha is gifted at the precise rendering of internal dialogue, which provides vital relief in a book so plot heavy. The third-person narrative tracks Asha and Mala tightly as tumultuous waves of emotion flood their senses. There are many moments when Kushwaha’s writing is capable of lyrical intensity; she adeptly handles high-register prose and often makes the reader soar alongside her characters. A highlight is the early relationship between Mala and Ash, the small, intimate chatter and accurate detail of flourishing affections: “The grin slipped from Mala’s lips. She nodded, self-conscious, sensing a subtle charge mounting in the air.” The perspective widens to encompass the two of them: “They held each other in a powerful stare. The space in the office seemed to shrink. He felt no more than a few inches away.”
Less successful are the few chapters devoted to Ash, where we dive suddenly into his interior space to learn that he shares her feelings — a process that only derails Kushwaha’s more delicate work. In another instance, when describing Mala and Ash’s first kiss, she writes touchingly, “And it lit up the dark matter of loneliness within her,” and immediately undermines it with a Hallmark sentiment: “with all the sparkle of the night sky.” This tonal imbalance is a key marker of the book. For every subtle moment of description or internal thought, there is a more heavy-handed technique that disrupts our engagement.
The novel is weighed down by the author’s tendency to give too much away. Characters relay their perspectives and opinions in full, and then are shown going through the motions of these feelings, leaving them with too much self-awareness. It renders their decisions meaningless and robs the writing of any natural tension. Early on, Asha flatly states to her best friend about her parents, “I’ve been keeping my distance because ever since they dropped that bomb on me, I’ve been scared about what else they might be hiding. I don’t trust them. I feel like I have to protect myself.” This unusual articulation leaves us asking why she’s avoiding the inevitable confrontation (other than to serve the needs of the plot). By presenting an eighteen-year-old so fully aware of her internal motivations, Kushwaha loses the momentum of discovery necessary for a coming-of-age story. Asha and Mala are sympathetic creations, full of palpable desire, and it is easy to want to follow along with them on their journeys. This unfortunate undercutting hampers characters who are otherwise rendered with thoughtful dimension.
The narratives echo off each other as the women struggle with their family dynamics, their independence, and an unwanted pregnancy. Mala is expecting Ash’s baby, though he is set to marry someone else. Asha believes she is pregnant after losing her virginity to her boyfriend on prom night — an episode that skirts issues of consent when her boyfriend tells her that he will use a condom and then doesn’t. Reading a book with a plot so packed should be an enjoyably maniacal experience, yet there are no tonal shifts in the prose to acknowledge its comic potential. Asha is subjected to the revelation about her adoption, her father’s coma, her introduction to booze and pot, a potential sexual assault, a subsequent breakup, and a DIY abortion attempt, which results in a hospital visit. Mala, meanwhile, has to deal with a baby from an affair, an arranged marriage, and a closeted husband — all culminating in a cuckold farce. Many moments beg for a light touch, but everything is soaked in a dour mood that allows no humour to seep in.
Without a break in the tension, we lose the gravity of the heavier scenes. Events pile up and we find ourselves sliding toward an incredulousness that turns to weariness, and finally numbness. Empathy requires the friction of diverse tones and moods to see the characters from varying perspectives. The effect here is flattened.
It’s unfortunate that the novel, the author’s second, frequently undermines its own strengths. None of the moments of intensity, gorgeous characterization, or tender interaction have any room to breathe. The engine of plot roars through the entire narrative, destroying any chance of subtlety. The frame of an outline is conspicuous throughout, and characters are pushed to hit prearranged points as they labour through major event after major event. Worst of all is the weak twist near the end: the revelation that the two parallel threads are not occurring concurrently, and that Mala is Asha’s birth mother. Such a late structural reveal again forces us to ask why. Aside from providing a cheap gotcha moment, there is no real reason for the connection to be hidden. The thematic reverberations between Mala and Asha are enough to bind them together.
The questions the twist raises are left largely unexplored. It opens the door to interesting thoughts — What would it be like for a South Asian mother and daughter in different eras to go through similar taboo experiences? — but leaves it gaping, much to the story’s detriment. We are left with the sense that there are two novels here, crammed together. A simpler approach, focused on character and interiority, would highlight Kushwaha’s strengths as a writer.
While Secret Lives could have benefited from a stricter edit, there is a heart that shows through. Kushwaha patiently explores the dynamics between mother and daughter and the wider cultural forces, detailing carefully how love and duty are bound together, and how they may come to warp each other. Under the groaning weight of plot is a straightforward, effective story of how we care about each other, and how difficult that can be.
Adnan Khan published There Has to Be a Knife, his first novel, in 2019.