(2019), a dystopian novel by Filipina-American author Joanne Ramos, follows Filipina immigrant Jane as she becomes a surrogate mother at a high-end facility where surrogates are closely monitored on behalf of the wealthy career women whose children they are carrying. Reviewers noted that The Farm
is both “a reproductive dystopian narrative” and “a social novel about women and class” (Kirkus Reviews
The novel opens in a large dormitory in New York, inhabited by immigrants from the Philippines. One of these immigrants, Jane, is approached by her 70-year-old aunt Evelyn, who begs Jane to fill in for her at her job as a live-in baby nurse for the Carters, a wealthy couple in Tribeca. Jane is reluctant to leave her own daughter, Amalia, but in need of money, she agrees to Evelyn’s proposal. Assuring Jane that white employers have “softer hearts” than rich Filipinos, Evelyn gives her young niece lengthy instruction in pandering to the self-image of wealthy liberals.
At the Carters’ home, Jane is shocked by the luxury of their lifestyle, and by their insulation from the realities of the world Jane knows. She watches in astonishment as everything from organic groceries to private health care is delivered to the Carters’ door. When baby Henry wakes in the night, it is Jane’s job to feed and entertain him. Meanwhile, Jane, who doesn’t own a breast pump, must lock herself in the bathroom to “milk herself like a cow.”
When the Carters ultimately find Jane unsatisfactory, she is summarily dismissed. Evelyn persuades her to apply for a position at a place called Golden Oaks, a for-profit facility, where surrogate mothers, called “hosts,” bear the children of wealthy career women. Under severe financial pressure, Jane reluctantly leaves Amalia with Evelyn and moves into Golden Oaks.
At first, Golden Oaks seems something of a paradise to Jane. She has privacy, comfortable facilities, three meals a day. “Coordinators” look after her needs. She also makes friends: Reagan and Lisa.
Reagan is a “Premium Host,” being white, pretty, and a college graduate. Jane learns that wealthy clients will pay more for these traits even though the Hosts contribute no genetic material to the child. Reagan is a lost soul, desperate to be of some use to someone, but she also wants to be financially independent of her controlling father.
Lisa is on her third stint as a Host. Her experience has taught her to be cynical about Golden Oaks. It is Lisa who points out that most of the Hosts are women of color with few economic options.
Jane quickly realizes that she and her fellow Hosts are of no value in themselves to Golden Oaks. Instead, they are only as valuable as the fetuses they are carrying. Their diets and exercise regimes are closely controlled. They are forbidden to have guests or leave the premises, so Jane cannot see Amalia, and she quickly begins to miss her daughter terribly. She contemplates escape, but her activities are monitored constantly through a “WellBand” worn on the wrist.
Alongside Jane’s perspective, the novel gives us the point of view of Golden Oaks’ commercial director, the ruthless Mae Yu. We learn that she is the daughter of a Chinese-immigrant father and an American mother who was disappointed by her husband’s failure to become rich. Mae taught herself Chinese because her father refused to speak the language at home and overcame racism and humble origins to put herself through Harvard Business School. Golden Oaks is her idea. She believes it provides an essential service for women who might otherwise struggle to combine successful careers with motherhood.
When Reagan, early in her stay at Golden Oaks, asks Mae Yu whether the venture is not potentially exploitative, Mae Yu responds with a lecture about free trade, arguing that any trade is free trade if it is “mutually beneficial.” But Mae Yu has struggles of her own: she, too, wants to have a child.
Gradually, we learn that the economic structure of Golden Oaks is even more exploitative than it initially appeared. The Hosts are paid a small stipend, from which they must pay rent to the facility. The “big money” is paid as a bonus, if and only if a healthy child is delivered (and not by Caesarean section). If a Host miscarries, or her baby is not healthy—even if it’s not her fault—she will make nothing on her lengthy time-investment. The anxiety this engenders is compounded by the facility’s medical staff, who discuss progress only with the “Mom,” via video call, while the Host lies ignored on the examining table.
Jane has been at the facility for a few months when Evelyn stops returning her calls. Jane panics, fearing that Amalia is in trouble. Jane is entitled to a scheduled visit, but when Lisa gets her in trouble with Mae, the visit is canceled. Along the way, Jane learns that Evelyn received a pay-out for recruiting Jane to Golden Oaks. Fearing that her aunt can’t be trusted, Jane decides to escape and asks Lisa to help. At first, Reagan is reluctant to join their plot, until she asks Mae if she can speak to her client, the “Mom,” in order to shore up her sense that she is being useful. After the conversation, Reagan discovers that Mae paid an actor to pose as the client. She, too, agrees to help Jane escape.
Jane rushes to the dormitory, where she is directed to a nearby hospital. There she finds that Evelyn is dying, although Amalia is fine.
Jane has no choice but to return to Golden Oaks, where she finds Mae waiting for her. Mae cancels Jane’s bonus, but in an act of pity, hires Jane to be the Host to Mae’s own child. In an epilogue, we find Jane and Amalia living above Mae’s house, where Jane works as a nanny.