Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage

The birds and the bees…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

After years of unsuccessful IVF treatment, Meg and Nate have given up their attempt to have a child, leaving Meg especially feeling that a vital part of her remains empty and unfulfilled. Her older sister Anna is home in Australia after spending several years working for various aid agencies in Thailand and Cambodia. At lunch one day, Anna introduces Meg to some friends, a gay couple who have just become parents via commercial surrogacy in Thailand. Suddenly Meg feels the hope she thought she had stifled come to life again. Anna is horrified at first – to her, commercial surrogacy is an exploitation of poor women in countries where their rights are already limited. But she comes to recognise Meg’s desperation and agrees to put her principles aside and use her knowledge of the language and customs of Thailand to help her sister and brother-in-law navigate their way through the difficult path they have chosen.

In Thailand, Mod feels the weight of family responsibilities bearing down on her. Her mother, younger siblings and most of all her little son, Puy, all depend on the little money she can make as a street-vendor, selling chicken. Then she learns that a friend is acting as a surrogate and being paid what seems like a small fortune. For Mod, the money is an important factor, but so is her religious belief that helping others will allow her to earn merit – a kind of spiritual savings account to provide an easier passage to reincarnation. Through the story of these three women, Meg, Anna, and Mod, the reader is shown the quiet tragedy of infertility and the complex morality around the question of paid surrogacy.

I shall start by saying that I’ve known the author via the blogosphere for a long time now, and know that this book has been a real labour of love for her over the last few years. Angela has previously written three crime novels, also based in Thailand, but this is her first venture into literary fiction. As always, I’ve tried my best not to let my friendship with her bias my review.

Most of the story is based in Thailand, a place Savage clearly knows extremely well. We see it from different angles, through the eyes of each of the three main characters. Savage shows it as a place of contrasts – rapidly modernising both physically and socially, but still with many people living in real poverty and holding to the old traditions. I loved the way she managed to be observational without being judgemental, and the insights she gave into the traditional culture and beliefs of the Thai people.

She brings this same balanced impartiality to the moral questions around the issue of paid surrogacy. I’m always afraid when a book is so clearly based around a moral issue that the author will slip into polemics, forcing her view on the reader. Savage avoids this by having her characters have very different opinions on the subject and letting them speak for themselves. The reader is then left with the task of using her own judgement on the matter.

It would have been so easy, and so lazy, to portray Mod as simply the poor third-world victim of first-world greed, but Mod is drawn with far more complexity than that, as is Meg. Mod is indeed treated as a commodity by the surrogacy agency, but her decisions are her own at every step of the way, and she sees this as a way to help others while also improving life for her own family. Savage does however show that in some cases the surrogates may have been pushed into it, by husbands or family, which obviously opens up an entirely different moral equation.

The embryo in this case is not biologically related to Mod or Meg; the eggs are from another woman, although the sperm is Nate’s own. This raises all kinds of questions regarding what makes a “mother” – is it the woman who donates the egg, the woman whose womb carries the child to term, or the woman who proposes to raise and nurture the child throughout its life? Savage handles these questions beautifully, raising them, exploring them, and leaving them gently unanswered. She also looks at the impact on the surrogate of giving up a child she has carried and birthed, and happily Savage doesn’t over-emotionalise this. She looks too at the fear of the adoptive mother of not feeling the same bond as she would to a biological child, and questions whether a child born in this way ought to be taught about the culture of her biological mother or her surrogate mother.

Many of the questions around surrogacy seemed to me to mirror the old debates around adoption, and we know that in most cases adoption works well for all involved. It is of course the question of money that raises the issue of exploitation, but is earning money this way better or worse than sex work, or sending young children out to work, or some of the other ways people in conditions of poverty have to sell themselves or their labour in order to survive? I must say I started out ready to be angry on behalf of the surrogates, but I came out of it much less sure of my stance.

Angela Savage

This is also a deeply emotional read as we all wait with the three women, all of whom I had come to care about, to see if the procedure is a success. Even I, who haven’t a maternal bone in my body, was on tenterhooks throughout, hoping all would go well and dreading that it wouldn’t. Did it? You’ll have to read it if you want to know the answer to that. An “issues” book where the author trusts the reader to think for herself, very well written and, in my opinion, a very fine novel indeed. Highly recommended (and that’s not because I’m biased, but because it deserves it).

NB Angela kindly sent me a copy of the book all the way from Australia. Thanks, Angela, and congratulations! You even made me cry…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

25 thoughts on “Mother of Pearl by Angela Savage

  1. I do like an ideas novel which features ‘real’ people you can believe in, sympathise, even empathise with, or at least engage with in some way. In fact, I’d go further and say this is what the very best fiction aims to achieve. This sounds to have done just that, a credit to the author and to you for conveying that in this review.


    • Thank you! Yes, I love when an author manages to explore a weighty subject like this through the characters themselves rather than by spouting polemics. Each of these characters feels very believable – well-meaning but not in any way perfect. It left me mulling over their futures… always a good sign!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not surprised you loved this one, FictionFan. Savage is a highly talented author, and quite skilled at developing characters, evoking emotion, and more. And what a powerful story, too. I’m so glad you got the chance to read this, and even happier that you enjoyed it as well as you did.


    • I’ve still only read one of her crime novels, but this is very different in style and I thought she handled it excellently. There’s a surprising amount of tension in it too, which keeps those pages turning as if by magic! Great stuff – I hope it’s a big success for her. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been lucky to become friends with a few newish authors through the blog and it’s always great to see them develop. For me, this is a real step up for Angela, and I’m so pleased for her because I know how much she cared about the story and how hard she worked on it. I think you’d enjoy it if you ever get a chance to read it – it’s probably more your usual fare than mine, in fact!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Not my usual fare either, so I was surprised by how much I grew to care about what happened to all these women. And all the stuff about Thai culture and traditions gave it an added layer of interest beyond the “issue”… 😀


    • It is! I love when an author lays out all sides of a question like this and then leaves me to decide for myself what to think about it all. It’s really very well done, and has a surprising amount of tension to keep those pages turning… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I would gain a lot from reading this book, as it sounds emotionally powerful and thought provoking. It’s really special too that it has been written by someone who has become your friend through blogging. It shows how brilliant and worthwhile the book blogging community truly is.


    • I do love when an author lays out all the different sides of an issue like this and then has the courage to let the reader decide for herself what she thinks about it all. I certainly felt differently about surrogacy than when I started out – more sympathetic to all involved. Yes, I’ve been really lucky to become friends with a few newish authors over the years I’ve been blogging, and it’s always lovely to see them develop and blossom. I hope this is a big success for Angela – it deserves to be!


  4. Oh, this sounds very good! (I would definitely cry.) I like that it sounds as if the author gives a balanced perspective on multiple issues and creates characters who are multi-faceted. Something like surrogacy brings out a lot of emotions and strong opinions but it’s not a simple matter. (Side note: After you mentioned this title, I spotted a book called Mother of Pearl at the library book sale. Of course I had to buy it and I wondered if it was the one you were reading but it’s a completely different book.)


    • It is! I love when an author lays out all the different sides of a question through the characters and then lets the reader decide what she thinks about it for herself. I’m so tired of being told what to think! (Ha! I hope that one turns out to be good too then! Now we need someone to write a book called Mother of Rose… 😉 )

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I really like the sound of this one. It’s such a complicated issue, one that seems to be around me quite a bit as my friends and I age, and many of my friends are unsuccessfully trying to have children of their own, and are beginning to look at other options. I hope to read and review a book called The Farm which also deals with this issue, but in a different way. Have you seen it around? It was published here a few months ago…

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, I haven’t heard of The Farm – I’ll be interested to read your review and see how it compares with this one. Yes, I don’t know if childlessness is more common now, or if people are just less willing to accept it, but it seems to be a growing subject…

      Liked by 1 person

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