After two of her books, I have a very complicated relationship with Sonali Dev. It would be very, very easy if I could just say “I don’t like her books,” and move on. Instead, I’m in the potentially masochistic position of still wanting to read her work, but I just desperately want it to be better.
I want to respect the hero. I want him to respect the heroine. I don’t want to read how he lies and hides things from her, or how he is condescending and dismissive of her in moments that (I think) are supposed to read as “sweet” and “protective.” I don’t want to spend the entire book shaking my head at the untenable, out-of-fashion romcom concept that a member of a couple (usually the woman) can so easily forgive a huge personal betrayal that belies the very foundation of the relationship, just because the other person grew to “love” her while the betrayal was being committed. I don’t believe love grows out of monumental deception.
I want the heroine to be a human person, and not a quirky, saccharine, patient Movie Girlfriend caricature whose only flaw is “clumsy.” I want her actions to be informed by her stated goals and motivations and not just by whatever will conveniently move the plot forward at any given time. If the heroine is so poor that she has no furniture or food in the hovel she rents in the US, I want to know how she is able to fly to India to confront the hero.
I want the couple to have something, anything, to recommend their relationship other than their mutual attraction and her Magical Hoo-Hah. Samir is a consummate rake in this book who, in its opening chapters, has cringey conversations with his brother that refer to women very chauvinistically, tossing around the “bitch” word about Mili just because she… exists? And suddenly he actually meets her, and because he has to carry her around for a few weeks (she hurt her ankle and wrist because CLUMSY) she makes him believe in the power of love. I am Jack’s Ineffable Disbelief.
I want to read a romance where the author doesn’t treat “other” women as competition for the hero and therefore garbage, to the disgusting extent that the book basically opens with a scene where Samir kicks a woman out of his bed and life because she had the gall to think that after six months, she is justified in having feelings for a man she thought was committed to her; then, after accidentally tumbling down the stairs, she goes to the press (she’s a Bollywood actress and he’s a director) and accuses him of assaulting her. THEN, several chapters later, when the accusation is brought up at a party in front of Mili, she loudly and confidently defends Samir, who she KNOWS what never do that (because she’s known him all of a month) so how DARE anyone question him! Seriously? Just because the woman HAPPENS to be lying in this instance that the author conveniently gets to stack in the hero’s favor, doesn’t mean we should accept as fact the glowing character references from recent acquaintances of accused men. This is a terrible message.
I could also do without all of the spectacularly contrived drama, which, listen — I get that Dev may be doing some playful nods to Bollywood, soap opera, and romance high-drama tropes here, but it all plays SO self-seriously, that it just kind of seems like this is what Dev thinks is necessary to up the stakes. But in one book, I do not need (spoilers, I guess)
1) Samir’s brother: If my plane crashes, my family will have nothing!
[2 days later]
Samir’s mom: Samir! Your brother was in a plane crash!
2) Samir and his brother: We cannot let [brother’s] Pregnant Wife know that brother was in a previous marriage to Mili that might not have ever been dissolved!
[confrontation, Pregnant Wife finds out]
Pregnant Wife: Oh no, I’m bleeding! WHATEVER WILL HAPPEN TO THE BABY
This is on top of the already pretty dramatic concept that the heroine was a child bride married to the hero’s brother when he was also a child, and the hero is mixed-race and adopted by his Indian family but was made to feel like an outsider by an abusive grandfather. This is SO MUCH in one book! And hardly any of it was examined to any better effect than just to signpost another turn in the plot, or offer rationalizations of characters’ bad behavior.
And that’s whats’s so frustrating. I do want to read a book about a child bride who was raised in an Indian subculture that still considers hers a legitimate marriage. I want to read a fish-out-of-water story about that child bride going to the US to get an advanced education, partly because she’s deeply interested in the subject but partly because she is concerned that the reason her husband has never come back for her is because he wants a worldly bride and she needs to be more educated. I do want to read about a mixed-race hero navigating his identity. I ESPECIALLY want to read more romance from the Indian perspective, including details like the side plot about Mili’s Punjabi friend’s parents being prejudiced against the South Indian man she wants to marry. I just want Dev to settle down with one or two things and really explore them, because I haven’t read anything like what she comes up with. I wish she trusted more in the strength of her concept and felt less like she had to rely on manufactured “excitement.”
So that’s why I hope that if I keep reading her books, she’ll write one that works for me. She’s working well within a realm of stories that I really want, but the two I have read have been such similarly unfortunate misfires.