Ok, this book is absolutely adorable. Delicious food, family shenanigans, drunk cooking show audition videos, fake engagement, sourdough-related antics – it’s got it all. One of my favorite things about the fake-relationship trope is when authors use it to explore how and why the characters keep secrets, and it was done masterfully. When I started this book, I hadn’t realized that Reena’s best friend is the main character from The Chai Factor, which I haven’t read, but this worked fine for me as a standalone.
Reena hates her career in finance but at least it’s better than working for the family real estate company. Her true passion is baking, and she’s got her eye on a pricey new baking class. Nadim doesn’t know that much about cooking, but he loves eating food, and the tempting smells coming from his neighbor’s apartment certainly make him interested in meeting her – until he runs into her in the hallway and realizes her dad is his boss and their families are trying to set them up. Reena swears that isn’t going to happen, but after a rough day and a long night at the neighborhood bar – and a drunk cooking video – they’re suddenly part of a cooking competition and pretending to be engaged. They’re both keeping more secrets than just that, though, and their families’ meddling may have ended any chance of a friendship – or a relationship – before it’s started.
“The Reena she let people see enjoyed drinks at the bar, fresh bread at home, and no drama. Who’d want the real Reena—the neurotic mess with maladaptive coping skills? Who couldn’t manage to keep a job she hated? With a family who never, ever let her be free. None of the other twelve guys had been interested in sticking around once her true self began to emerge.”
Reena felt so real. I could easily imagine grabbing a drink with her at the Sparrow and kvetching about our families and jobs. She’s not great at handling uncomfortable situations head on. Her default is to “deflect and distract” and hope the other person forgets what they were talking about. Nowhere is that more obvious than her complicated relationship with her family, especially with her sister Saira. While she works hard at presenting the facade of being a functioning adult, she actually struggles a lot with her job and lives for the moments she can spent baking. Learning to bake bread was one of her coping mechanisms for getting through her depressive episodes, and it’s something she both loves and excels at. Since the book is solely from Reena’s POV, Nadim is a bit more of a cipher. He admits readily to Reena that he’s very malleable and changes to fit in with the people he’s around. What exactly that means in his past, though, is something he’s closemouthed about, but Reena can’t complain as she’s certainly not wiling to share all her warts, either. While Reena doesn’t initially think too highly of him, through their cooking videos and other interactions (the sourdough babysitting!) he reveals that he’s secretly a complete cinnamon roll.
“Twelve boyfriends?” he asked, smiling. “Is it too unlucky to try for a thirteenth? Am I doomed to fail?”
She shook her head. “Thirteen is a baker’s dozen. The extra one always tastes the sweetest.”
I liked their journey from strangers to friends to lovers. Reena’s adamant from the beginning that she won’t marry Nadim, but, gradually, she’s willing to be friends and then maybe even date him. I loved how comfortable they were with each others – the cooking videos were so sweet and steamy at the same time – and I also loved how both of them were so afraid of being vulnerable with the other for fear of losing their relationship. They’re absolutely wonderful together, but their secrets keep them from committing fully. On top of that, Reena doesn’t think she can trust a relationship with someone who works for her dad, for good reason.
Reena’s dad – and the rest of her family – is overbearing but ultimately loving (if in a very certain way). I like that Reena’s dynamics with her family – which she somewhat jokingly describes as toxic at the start of the book – progress, but aren’t completely fixed by the end of the book. Her relationship with her family – and all the secrets they’re keeping from each other – mirror her relationship with Nadim. Sure, everything looks great from the outside, but Reena, at least, spends most of her time internally worrying about being found out or guilt-ridden about all the secrets. Part of that goes back to her “distract and deflect” habit, and the worst is with her sister Saira. Even when she works up the courage to confront her, it doesn’t go exactly the way she planned – or the way most authors would write it – and I love how ambivalent she felt about doing something so outside her comfort zone. Their progress towards a more healthy relationship is slow and involves, well, a lot of health food.
“I need someone to feed Brian while I’m away.”
“You have a pet? And his name is Brian?”
“No, Brian’s not a pet…He’s my…he’s a sourdough. Well, one of them.”
“He’s a what?”
She sighed. “He’s a sourdough starter.”
This book made me so hungry – the puri, the dal, the bhajias, not to mention all the delicious bread! One of the things I really loved was that Reena refused to do fusion food for the cooking show. She’s going to make dishes she grew up eating, not try to dumb things down and make something fake just for TV – which is hilarious when you consider they’re faking their relationship for TV. It’s clear how much Reena loves cooking and how it’s a reflection of her culture and family for her. She even jokes that one of the reasons she keeps attending family dinners is for her mom’s puri.
Overall, I loved the food, the complex family relationships, and most of all, Reena. I will definitely be picking up The Chai Factor and anything else this author writes!