I’ve never read a romance novel. I’ve never even come close to reading one. But, oddly enough, the book that has had the most lasting impact on me was Crime and Punishment, and not for it’s explorations of nihilistic degeneration and the Westernization of Russia, but for the deeply compassionate love between it’s protagonist, Raskolnikov, and Sonya. More than anything, the redemption he receives through their love is what touched my soul, and its gift to me was a feeling that I have long sought to replicate.
So romance is an important part of what I’m looking for in a novel….but the romance genre? It always seemed vapid and lacking in authenticity; the genre feels like a cheap reproduction of a finely crafted work of art, beneath notice and without intrinsic value. Harsh? Undoubtedly. So, here I am. Reviewing a romance novel.
First and foremost, this isn’t really what I had in mind. I guess I expected pages of heaving bosoms and flowing hair, stilted dialogue and paper-thin stereotypes. What I got was more…well, Notting Hill kept springing to mind. But this was less a commentary on the nature of fame, and more stilted melodrama with a non-milquetoast (but less likable) cast of characters.
Beyond that, however, I found the basic premise to be somewhat insufferable.
This book is built on the premise that the two leads, Vikram and Ria, grew up together, and fell in love only to eventually be driven apart because of some deep, traumatic secret in Ria’s family. So she pushes Vikram away, destroying them both in the process. He, of course, is oblivious that her true intentions were to protect him, and she’s frustratingly closed-off and incapable of telling him the truth. Their cousin is getting married, so they’re all stuck in a house together.
I mean, look, a meaningful love affair – no matter how long ago it may have been – might still resonate. Encountering a lost love can be shocking and elicit any number of powerful emotions. I can buy that. Vikram and Ria haven’t seen one another in 10 years (since she ran off with some skeevy producer who, essentially, sexed the innocence out of her). After being reunited for this wedding, we have to endure roughly 150 pages of a woman moments from a mental breakdown every time she thinks of Vikram. But these characters don’t inhabit this world. They’re thrown together for a wedding that’s only ever mentioned as a backdrop for these two characters being thrust together. For instance, their cousin, Nikhil, takes them both out to dinner (along with Nikhil’s bride-to-be, and Vikram’s girlfriend). What? He knows their history, and he knows that their break-up destroyed Vikram. Later in the story, he tells Ria to keep her distance from Vikram – for his sake. So he takes them all out to dinner together? Especially given how Vikram and Ria had been interacting up to that point, I can’t imagine a situation more awkward than going to dinner with them (where one would be a fifth wheel). This scene only happens so that Ria can be hysterical and Vikram can be an asshole.
By the way – can we please drop this tired trope of the redeemed asshole? Ladies, if the man you love treats you like shit – leave him. He’s not secretly a great guy, he’s an asshole. He doesn’t deserve you, and you don’t deserve to be treated the way he is going to treat you. Fair or not, I blame Jane Austen for two centuries of lesser writers paying homage to Mr. Darcy. It’s not character development – it’s dishonest.
I wasn’t reading this book, I was persevering. Ria is utterly devoid of strength or resolve, and it’s hard to feel anything for her but disgust. She’s hysterical and incapable of coping with her own inability to handle her own terrible choices in life. But I have trouble seeing this for the mental health issue it’s presented as. I don’t know. Maybe I’m too well-balanced, but she just seems self-destructive to me.
Perhaps that’s unfair of me, but I think the fault lies with the writing. Dev throws us into a situation without really explaining why these characters are behaving the way they do, or giving us a reason to give a shit about them when they’re passive-aggressively hurting one another. Their backstory is doled out in flashbacks that are seamlessly interwoven into the narrative. By that, I mean there’s almost no transition between the past and the present. The two blend together in a a confused tangle of idiocy. Ria’s past is a suppurating miasma of pain and broken dreams, but because time isn’t allotted for validating her fears. All we get is, “I had to be a terrible person so I didn’t ruin Vikram’s life.” Bullshit.
Again, I’m not really a fan of the genre, but is this what amounts to a romance novel? 200 pages of furtive glances heavy with longing and bodies radiating heat that can be felt across the room? Maybe my life has been woefully lacking in passion, but this read like the wistful longing of an emotionally enfeebled teenager.
With all that said, I don’t think Sonali Dev is a terrible writer – though I do think this is a horrible book. If her characters were likable, I think the eventual expressions of love would’ve been quite endearing. And some of the ancillary characters (the aunts) were likable and fun. If this were adapted into a movie, I’m sure they would steal every scene that had them. Dev’s descriptions of Indian culture were rich and authentic, and left me wanting more. I just think she should’ve spent more time developing her characters, and focused less on building tension through the contrivance of characters deliberately withholding valuable information from one another.
But, hey, at least I can say I’ve read a romance novel….