The face of Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman was all over the internet in Spring 2019, mixed up in a college admissions bribery scandal. Huffman’s part was small - an SAT exam - but the wider case was a rabbit’s warren. It’s alleged bribes were paid to entrance administrators. That psychologists intentionally misdiagnosed rich kids with learning disabilities, so they got longer to do exams. It’s even claimed the faces of hopeful students were photoshopped onto athletes’ bodies to get them the top college places reserved for sports stars.
It was a great story, but the headlines expressed shock. How could these people use their wealth and privilege to cheat their way into a superior education? How could they so blithely skew the system without realising the effect their selfish actions had on the poorer people, the people of colour, the working class whites? Those with better SAT scores, with genuine athletic ability? Those kids who had earned their Ivy League places, but were now pushed out as these privileged brats were nudged to the top of the queue through brazen cheating?
Was it the brazen-ness that was shocking? Because surely the fact of it was not shocking at all? Surely everyone knew that was how the system worked? And in the days that followed the breaking news, inevitable editorials expanded to include the bigger picture, the wider context of how these privileged groups exploited the system in countless other ways; not just at the point of application, but all the way through the college years and beyond. Because of course they do.
Around the same time this scandal hit the headlines, Joanne Ramos’ The Farm was released. It describes a world where the wealthy, privileged few delegate the mess and risk of childbearing onto mainly immigrant women. This isn’t pitched as surrogacy for medical necessity, although that possibility is touched upon, and the line is pleasantly blurred; but more for convenience. It all happens at Golden Oaks, which is run like a luxury health spa. There, the carefully vetted “Hosts” see out their pregnancy in a closely monitored environment; with a controlled diet, exercise regime, health checks etc. Their personal freedom is exchanged for an easy life and the promise of a big pay check on safe delivery of the baby. While Filipinos, like the main character, Jane, are preferred for their “service-oriented” attitude, the most wealthy of clients can opt for “Premium Hosts” like Jane’s roommate Reagan — white, and Ivy League educated.
I was expecting The Farm to be a deeper, darker dystopia. It was pitched as a modern version of The Handmaid’s Tale, so I was braced for it to open a rift in my imagination where a horrific vision of what could be would flood in. Instead, The Farm felt comparatively light. Quite believable. As though it were something we might scroll past on Twitter next week and wonder why the headlines were quite so scandalised, because of course it exists. Of course there’s a baby farm where rich couples exploit desperate immigrant women’s bodies for their convenience. Horrendous, yes, but shocking?
In the college admissions scandal, some families are accused of paying “a really smart guy” to just sit the entrance exams for their kids completely, so they can carry on their charmed lives uninterrupted. It’s been suggested this pattern continues throughout the education system; that it’s widespread for students to pay others to write their essays for them. As they get those lucrative jobs there will be someone else to prepare their speeches, coach them in phone calls…all the inconvenience of accruing success outsourced. So the fictional characters in The Farm want a different kind of success - the perfect family - but they too want to outsource the inconvenience and continue their lives of luxury uninterrupted.
And that’s where Ramos’ skill lies with The Farm; not by presenting a drastic dystopia, but by sticking so close to our current reality. The world she portrays is uncannily believable, which is all the more unsettling.
She also succeeds in shining light into the many morally grey areas. The owners of Golden Oaks are not the clear-cut antagonists of Atwood’s Gilead. Many chapters are narrated from the centre manager, Mae’s, perspective, which shows her in a slightly sympathetic, if deluded, light. The seeds of the scheme come from the same place that modern surrogacy comes from; a place of medical or social need, and Ramos shows how the managers have let it evolve past that in a way they’ve convinced themselves is acceptable. It is utterly convincing that they almost believe they’re offering the hosts a great deal. And the good guys are not so clear-cut either, as becomes clear as the novel develops.
Even in minor details, Ramos offsets the multiple narrative perspectives to great effect. In one example, Filipino host Jane warns her roommate Reagan not to leave jewellery lying around when the cleaners come. Her try-hard liberal friend is confused, while fellow “Premium Host” Lisa instantly brands Jane a racist. Ramos then revisits the incident from Jane’s perspective: she knows that when rich people carelessly lose valuable things, the cleaners are accused of stealing them.
The downside to Ramos’ painstaking consideration of everyone’s perspective is that she seems unwilling to draw a conclusion, and the end of the book is a let down. On the one hand, lots of loose threads don’t seem to be tied up - promises and threats, both from the characters and the narrative, aren’t followed through. On the other hand, some threads are tied up too neatly. If the point was moral ambiguity, then an ending was inevitably going to be hard to pull off. But there are always multiple sides to every story. Parents who just want to see their kids have the best start in life they can. Teenagers who do as they’re told, are trying to enjoy the summer and are oblivious to the scheming around them. Maybe a man with a family to feed, or a sick dog, or…who knows. At some point though, good intentions aren’t enough: you’ve got to give the story a proper ending.
Published: 7th May 2019, Bloomsbury Publishing