Approximately 6.7 million women face struggles with fertility in the US alone, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. That makes up about 11 percent of the country’s reproductive population. The global in vitro fertilization business is valued at roughly $16.7 billion and is projected to reach a cumulative annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.2 percent by 2026.
Despite this billowing market and a proliferation of fertility clinics and agencies that ensure anonymity for egg donors, legal systems are often ill-equipped to deal with personal, emotional, and spiritual conflicts that can arise in various permutations and combinations through the process.
In her debut novel, HER DAUGHTER’S MOTHER, accomplished New York City-based writer Daniela Petrova deftly weaves the sensitivities of psychological conflicts embedded in this reality into an intriguing web of domestic suspense.
Lana Stone has everything going for her—Bulgarian beauty, smarts, a coveted gig as an associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a loving, long-term relationship with Columbia University professor Tyler, and an apartment at the verdant Morningside Heights neighborhood near the Columbia campus. At least, that’s what one would assume if meeting Lana for the first time.
But things are not as they seem. To begin with, Lana can’t get pregnant. After years of struggling to conceive, Lana and Tyler resign themselves to the last resort, a choice that eats into a sizable chunk of their savings: using an egg donor.
Enter Katya Dimitrova. Katya, also Bulgarian, is an economics student at Columbia University and has been chosen with careful precision such that a connection to Lana’s own genetic roots can be retained. Alas, just three days before the transfer, Tyler walks out on Lana, claiming that he needs “space.” A dazed Lana decides to go through with the embryo transfer anyway. Six weeks later, she discovers that she’s pregnant.
Things take a turn when Lana spots her egg donor, Katya, on a subway train. Curiosity lays siege, and Lana follows Katya, planning to do no more than observe her from afar. But Katya falls on the pavement and Lana comes to her rescue.
The instant connection between the women, vastly different as they are, quickly develops into a friendship, which helps Lana tide over the grief of her breakup with Tyler. And then, Katya goes missing.
Embroiled in the ensuing police investigation, Lana, now a suspect in the disappearance, probes into Katya’s past—only to discover a tangle of disturbing secrets that could forever capsize all that she thought she believed in. No spoilers, but the story rises to mount the stallion of a gut-wrenching cliffhanger before receding to an unsettling denouement that lingers, long after you’ve finished reading it.
Publisher’s Weekly describes HER DAUGHTER’S MOTHER as “a gripping tale of the consequences of obsession” and the book received critical praise from a swell of bestselling authors including Aimee Malloy and Kathleen Barber, ahead of its publication in June 2019.
This prelude to a promising career as a novelist has not come easy for Petrova.
The novel’s authenticity lends itself to Petrova’s personal experience with fertility treatments, including egg donor cycles, and related emotional turmoil. But, for Petrova, the agony didn’t stop there.
In addition to the crushing blow of miscarrying twice and not getting pregnant, she had to contend with a divorce. One might deem it unfair that this phase of Petrova’s life was a fitting appendage to a childhood spent in communist Bulgaria, growing up in a non-affluent working-class family, barely speaking English until arriving in the US at 22 and taking English as a second language (ESL) classes at the YMCA, signing up for membership at the New York Public Library and devouring English-language versions of books she had previously read in Bulgarian. In the US, Petrova cleaned apartments and worked as a nanny even as she learned how to write a check and use a credit card.
Many in her shoes would have either become cynical or felt entitled once something did come their way. Not Petrova. Her infectious positivism is a breath of fresh air as well as a learning experience for aspiring novelists.
“I have been very fortunate and lucky,” she says, crediting New York Times bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld for recommending literary agency Fletcher & Company’s Lisa Grubka, whom she then signed with. Petrova had interviewed Sittenfield for a Q&A on Guernica Magazine when Grubka’s name came up.
The first draft of HER DAUGHTER’S MOTHER, whose earliest versions hark back to 2012, was completed in 2013. But the novel went on the backburner until 2015 as Petrova focused on rebuilding her life after her divorce. “I’ve made my peace with that part of my life,” Petrova says. “It turns out I’m happier having books than babies.”
Upon signing with Lisa Grubka, HER DAUGHTER’S MOTHER was workshopped at a number of writers’ forums including Catapult’s The Novel Generator. The book deal emerged around mid-2018, barely two weeks after the novel went out on submission.
“There are so many great authors we haven’t heard of yet, who haven’t been as fortunate. But, be true to yourself and keep at it as long as you’re enjoying it. That’s the important part,” she says, advising aspiring authors to be persistent and join writing groups and/or workshop their novels in writing classes, like she did.
Petrova, who previously worked in education at World Bank, holds a Bachelor’s in Philosophy from Columbia University and a Master’s degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness from New York University. Her academic background in mental health counseling and philosophy has informed her writing.
“Studying mental health counseling helped me get a better understanding of the human psyche,” she says. “I was struck by how often we end up hurting those we love most, without meaning to, because of our fears and insecurities—something I explore in the book.”
Petrova’s articles have been published in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Marie Claire, among others. These journalistic endeavors have come in handy too. She not only drew upon her personal experiences to write the novel, but also researched and fact-checked extensively to give her narrative an additional layer of credibility. This involved interviews with NYPD detective Daniel Churla to understand the procedural aspects of investigations concerning missing persons, and art librarian Jeff Guerrier, who assisted with insights into art citations and the daily tasks of a museum art curator.
The novel attempts an ambitious narrative style, which is non-linear in that it oscillates between the past and present as it unfolds through the voices of Lana, Tyler, and Katya.
“I decided that I needed to tell this story from each of their points of view, and that was a major breakthrough for me because the story really came together,” Petrova says.
But getting there was challenging. “One of the difficulties I ran into with this book is that when I began editing, it effected the structure; whenever I made even a small change, it required almost rewriting the book because I would suddenly realize that I’m giving away pieces of the puzzle earlier than I should. It felt like I was playing a complicated game of chess with myself.”
The genre of psychological suspense turned out to be a natural fit because fertility treatment is by nature a suspense game fraught with uncertainty and patience at every stage.
Petrova, who is a fan of Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, Tana French and Megan Abbott, is already working on her next suspense novel, where she will explore elements of domestic abuse and the experiences and constraints of an immigrant woman.
Daniela Petrova grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Sofia, Bulgaria. After the fall of Communism, she moved to New York, where she cleaned apartments while studying English at the YMCA. She earned a BA in Philosophy from Columbia University and an MA in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness from New York University. She is a recipient of an Artist Fellowship in Writing from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in anthologies, magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon and LARB. She lives and writes in New York City. HER DAUGHTER’S MOTHER is her first novel.
To learn more about Daniela, please visit her website.