The book: Joanne Ramos ’95’s debut novel The Farm (Random House) is a chilling tale of the struggles and sacrifices of surrogate motherhood. When Jane, a single mother and immigrant from the Phillipines, is offered a spot at The Farm, she has no choice but to accept—this selective nine-month luxury retreat is a well-paid dream vacation; in return, she must devote her whole being to creating the perfect baby for a wealthy client while surrendering all contact with the outside world, including her newborn daughter.
Told from the perspective of four women, The Farm explores gender, race, and class, and of who has access to power, freedom, and choice.The author: Joanne Ramos ’95 was born in the Philippines and moved to Wisconsin when she was 6. After working in investment banking and private-equity investing for several years, she became a staff writer at The Economist. She lives in New York City with her husband and three children.
Opening lines: The emergency room is an assault. There are too many people, and the din of their voices is too loud. Jane is sweating—it is hot outside, and the walk from the subway was long. She stands at the entrance, immobilized by the noise and the lights and the multitude. Her hand instinctively moves to cover Amalia, who still sleeps on her chest.
Ate is here somewhere. Jane ventures into the waiting area. She sees a figure that resembles her cousin. She is dressed in white—Ate will be wearing her nursing uniform—but the woman is Americana, and too young. Jane scans the crowd and begins to search for Ate row by row, feeling a growing apprehension, though she tires to stifle it. Ate always says Jane worries too much and too soon, before she knows anything is even wrong. And her cousin is hardy. She did not even get sick form the stomach virus that swept through the entire dormitory over the summer. It was Ate who took the lead in nursing her dorm-mates back to health—bringing ginger tea to their bunks, washing their soiled clothes—even though many of them were half her age and most much younger.
Jane sees the back of another woman’s head: dark hair threaded with silver. Jane makes her way toward her, hopeful but not entirely convinced, because the head is angled in the way of someone sleeping, and Ate would never sleep here, under these bright lights and around all these strangers.
Jane is right. It is not Ate but a woman who looks Mexican. She is short like Jane’s cousin, sleeping with her legs splayed and mouth open. As if she is in the privacy of her own home, Jane can imagine Ate saying with distaste.
“I am looking for Evelyn Arroyo,” Jane says to the harried-looking woman behind the registration desk. “I am her cousin.”
The woman glances up from her computer with an impatient expression that softens into a smile when she sees Amalia in the baby carrier on Jane’s chest. “How old?”
“She is four weeks,” Jane answers, pride blooming in her heart.
“She’s a cutie,” the woman says just before a man with a shiny, bald head cuts in front of Jane and begins to yell that his wife has been waiting for hours and what the hell is going on?
The woman behind the desk tells Jane to go to Triage. Jane does not know where this is but does not ask, because the woman is busy with the angry man. Jane walks down a hallway lined with cots. She checks each bed for Ate, embarrassed when the man or woman lying there is not asleep but looks her directly in the eyes. One old man begins to speak to her in Spanish as if beseeching her for help, and Jane apologizes that she is not a nurse before hurrying away.
She finds her cousin farther down the hall. Ate is covered in a sheet and her face against the softness of the pillow is pinched and hard. Jane realizes she has never seen her cousin asleep before, even though Jane rents the bunk right above her—Ate is always on the move or away on a job. Her stillness makes Jane fearful.
Ate collapsed on a baby-nurse assignment, in the Fifth Avenue apartment of a family called the Carters. This is what Dina, the Carters’ housekeeper, told Jane when they finally spoke. Jane was not entirely surprised by this. Her cousin had been suffering from dizzy spells for several months. Ate blamed them on her blood-pressure pills but did not make time to see a doctor, because she was booked in back-to-back jobs.
Ate was trying to burp Henry Carter, Diana said with a hint of accusation in her voice, as if the fault lay with the baby. This did not entirely surprise Jane, either. Ate had described to Jane how Henry would not burp in the usual positions: sitting on Ate’s lap, his floppy neck snug between her fingers and his body stretched over his stick-like legs; or slung over her shoulder like a sack of rice. He only burped when Ate was walking and jiggling him and patting his back with the flat of her palm. Even this way, it could take ten or twenty minutes before Ate succeeded.
“You should put him down, so you can rest,” Jane had urged Ate when they spoke only two nights ago, while Ate was having a hurried dinner in her room.
“Ay. But then the gas wakes him, and his nap is too short, and I am trying to get him on the sleep routine.”
Dina told Jane that before Ate collapsed, she managed to place Henry safely on the sofa. The mother was out exercising even though she was bleeding and Henry was barely three weeks old. So it was Dina who called 911 and held the baby while the men wheeled Ate into the service elevator. Dina was the one who scrolled through Ate’s phone looking for someone to call and found Jane. In her voicemail, she said only that Ate was in the hospital and that she was alone.
“You are not alone now,” Jane tells her cousin, feeling guilty that it was hours before she checked her messages and returned Dina’s call. But Amalia was awake much of the previous night, and when she fell asleep this morning after her feeding, Jane allowed herself to rest, also. The others were already at work, so they had the room to themselves. Jane slept with Amalia on her chest, the sun streaming through the dirty windows, undisturbed.
Jane smooths Ate’s hair, gazing at the deep lines around her mouth and her small, sunken eyes. She looks so old. Jane wonders if a doctor has already come but does not know whom to ask. She watches the men and women in colored scrubs stride past, waiting for someone she can approach, someone with a kind face, but they all rush by, preoccupied.
Amalia begins to stir in the sling. Jane fed her before they left the dorm, but that was over two hours ago now. She has seen the American women breast-feeding their babies openly on benches in the park, but she could never do this. She kisses Ate quickly on her forehead—Jane would be too shy to kiss Ate like this if she was awake, and the gesture feels strange—and goes in search of a bathroom. In a clean-looking stall, she covers the toilet bowl with tissue paper before sitting and takes Amalia out of the baby carrier. Her daughter is ready to latch, her wet mouth open. Jane looks at her, the eyes black as night that take up half her face, and is overcome with tenderness so vast it’s almost suffocating. She guides Amalia to her nipple and her baby latches on with ease. It was hard in the beginning, but they know how to do this now, the two of them.
Reviews: “The Farm is a completely plausible imagination of the future of pregnancy in a world of ever-greater inequality. What at first feels off-kilter is slowly ramped up to truly chilling, and it’s done so subtly that we barely notice the change happening—it’s not afraid to ask searching questions about who wins and who loses when women’s bodies are commodified, and how freedom and agency for some come at a cost for others. It’s sharply prescient, and terrifying, too.” –Sophie Mackintosh, author of The Water Cur