REVIEW: Sonali Dev’s THE BOLLYWOOD BRIDE

Bollywood_BrideMiss Bates starts her fourth reviewing year (woo hoo!) with a new-to-her author, Sonali Dev, and the second novel in her “Bollywood” series, The Bollywood Bride. Ria Parkar is the eponymous bride, a Bollywood star with a past to hide and secrets to protect. When the novel opens, Ria struggles with painful memories of a childhood gone awry because of her mother’s mental illness and father’s grief. She struggles with the memory of betraying and abandoning Vikram Jathar, the great love of her life. She struggles with the sexual exploitation she endured to “make it” in Bollywood. Ria is a tormented figure; she’s on edge, unraveling, losing control. When a paparazzo takes a picture of her attempting suicide (she didn’t, she was reaching for a dropped cell phone), she flees to Nikhil’s, her cousin’s, Chicago wedding to avoid the publicity. As we soon learn, Ria doesn’t care what India’s papers say about her; her fears are deeper and more personal. In Chicago, amidst elaborate Indian-wedding traditions (the Bride‘s fun part), she encounters the young love she cast aside. Vikram is bigger, meaner, and angrier (at her) than his loving, optimistic twenty-one year old self ever suggested he’d be and it’s Ria’s fault. Keeping a cool distance, though as vulnerable to him as she was ten years ago at eighteen, Ria wants to ensure she won’t hurt “Viky” as she did then. 

Dev’s romance novel breaks into three parts: each share a strength, but each also exhibit weakness. If there’s one thing Miss Bates can say about Dev, it’s that she sure can write. Whatever flaws to her narrative, her prose has a lovely metaphor-laden rolling quality. Miss Bates is a sucker for good writing; therefore, though she can’t say she loved Bollywood Bride, she’d read Dev again. But it was Bollywood Bride she read and has quibbles. Miss Bates enjoyed the initial Mumbai-set part to Ria’s story; the second part fell apart. The third exhibited a redemptive light, but it was a case of too little too late. Miss Bates admired what Dev was trying to do, but she didn’t enjoy its execution.

[One could argue there are spoilers ahead.] Dev’s novel is heroine-centric; it rises or falls on Ria’s characterization. On the other hand, the genre requires us to understand the heroine on the basis of her interactions with the hero. “Viky,” at least for Miss Bates, is as problematic. When we meet Ria in her Mumbai apartment, she fears that, like her mother, she will suffer a debilitating mental illness. This colours her life and relationships. It explains why she left Viky: to protect him from her illness as her mother didn’t her beloved father. This thread is what The Bollywood Bride is about: Ria keeping to her fearful patterns; Ria emerging from her fearful patterns. Finally, Ria re-evaluating how she’ll confront her fear of suffering as her mother within a loving relationship with Vikram. In the midst of this personal heroine’s journey, Dev hoped to expose antiquated views of mental illness and bring a more enlightened, understanding, and compassionate attitude to bear on the issue. In that sense, she succeeded in her portrayal of Ria’s journey, with a helping hand from Vikram. Nevertheless, one of Miss Bates’ quibbles is the Victorian portrayal of Ria’s mother’s illness. It was akin to Rochester’s wife and Ria’s fears very much an echo of Jane’s. Ria’s experiences are cranked to such a high angst level and the melodrama is so thick, they break the narrative’s plausibility.

The second third of the novel takes place in Chicago, at Nikhil and Jen’s wedding. As a child, Ria’s aunt, uncle, cousin Nikhil, and the summers she spent in Chicago, were her saving grace. She met Vikram during one of those summers. They became friends; then, were everything to each other. Her departure and/or rejection, precipitated by her mother’s illness, devastated Viky, especially because she never shared that with him. When they meet again during the wedding preparations, Viky behaves like a dick. Miss Bates thinks that we’re supposed to be sympathetic to him, but she couldn’t muster any for Golden Boy. Things come to a head and Viky and Ria play nice, for the wedding’s sake, and one thing leads to another, yada yada yada … presto, insta-recovered-love. Vikram is downright mean and then idealized to such an extent he’s not believable. In this second third and longest part of the novel, Ria and Vikram have a lot of healing, mind-blowing sex: “His face was a perfect reflection of him – arrogant, demanding, and yet so steadfast, so very gentle that ten years weren’t enough to erase his touch. A touch that had healed her once, and ironically enough, taught her how to go on even after she gave up the right to … ” Healer then, healer now. Miss Bates is not a fan of the mystical sexual connection. There’s one maddening, pesky, persistent problem with Ria and Vikram: they never converse. And so much of the novel’s conflict can be solved with honesty and maturity.

Miss Bates feels maybe she’s been unfair to Dev’s Bollywood Bride, but reader-dissatisfaction never left her as she tapped pages. The last third of the novel does pick up, however. Ria finds strength and chutzpah; Vikram goes after Ria and, together, they exchange difficult truths. It was good, especially because it’s permeated with a serenity that one rarely finds in a romance’s finale. And ne’er a grovel to be found: our Viky and Ria have grown up. But that middle bit, the novel’s core, didn’t work for Miss Bates. With her sidekick, Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Dev’s Bollywood Bride: it was “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.

Sonali Dev’s The Bollywood Bride is published by Kensington Books. It was released on Sept. 29th, 2015, and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Kensington for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.

11 thoughts on “REVIEW: Sonali Dev’s THE BOLLYWOOD BRIDE

  1. Hi Kay, Congratulations on your 4th year and 20,000 visitors! Also, thank you for the thoughtful review of an Indian themed romance. I’ve read a number of these in the last five years – some set in India, some dealing with the Indian-American or Indian-Canadian experience in the romance format, and have found them really interesting and fun. Since love is universal, the romances (or even the dreaded chick lit) are great vehicles for exploring how we are similar and different in our cultural interpretations of it. While your comments on it don’t leave me feeling terribly inspired to read this particular book, your review is a great reminder to seek out some more books along these lines 2016.

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    • Thank you so much for reading and commenting so graciously!! Wishing you and yours all the blessings in the new year!

      I really liked what you said about love as a universal narrative: sadly, there wasn’t much of that here. I wanted to love this book so badly, but I really couldn’t, even while I admired the writing and want to read her again. I have a feeling this wasn’t the best Dev can do. Despite my critique, I’m most glad I read it too. After noting all the category addiction in my “best of” post, I’d like to read romance from other sources more often. So, for that, I’m really glad I read it.

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  2. I liked the first book in this set, although it had some weaknesses to my mind in the resolution of the amped-up conflict. And people in love who don’t talk to each other.
    *pet peeve* But I loved the traditional wedding preparations, and the cuisine, and how well the culture of these characters was incorporated in the novel.

    Thanks as always for your insight!

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    • You’re most welcome! I loved those aspects of the novel as well: and there was a scene in a traditional Indian clothing store with the heroine, hero, and her cousin that was hilarious. And it shows the heroine at her best, too, which we see near-nil of.

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  3. I suppose I had a different reaction to this book because I read it as romantic women’s fiction, not contemporary romance. As a result, I didn’t pin Ria’s characterization to Vikram, nor did I view him through the lens of Romance Novel Hero.

    Their miscommunication felt very real to me. They were childhood sweethearts with a super intense bond where they didn’t need to verbally communicate. Their reunion as adults felt like two people fighting that bond, so their nonverbal cues were sufficient for me to get them.

    I actually thought the ending was the draggy part. The issue with Ria and her mother was tied up a little too neatly for me. But otherwise, I adored this book even more than the first one.

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    • I’m very glad you made this comment because it’s important to see the novel through a differing opinion’s perspective. I never thought of it as women’s fiction, which would ensure that I stay away like the plague. But I think you make a very good point.

      Women’s fiction is such a nebulous genre?, is it a genre? I guess … for me. The way I define is to see in it a focus primarily on female relationships (the romantic relationship as secondary). I didn’t think Bollywood Bride had sufficiently-developped female relationships: the relationship that is primarily “worked out” is between Vikram and Ria and there’s an HEA, so that meant romance to me.

      Thank you so much for your comment: it’s great when it makes me rethink my review!

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      • I’ve been reading–and writing!–romantic women’s fiction over the past few years, and I’ve learned how to spot them! 😉

        It can be a nebulous genre (or “genre”? There’s lots of debate over what women’s fiction means), but it can have a strong romance or no romance at all as long as a woman’s inner journey remains at the core of the plot. Since Ria’s journey drove the plot, it felt women’s fiction to me.

        I could also say that it being published in trade paperback with no clinch or glistening pecs set my expectations. It will be interesting to see if Dev moves back to a more traditional romance narrative in the next book, or if she’ll continue to occupy this cross-genre space.

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          • No problem. 😀

            And I would classify A Bollywood Affair as contemporary romance. It had the many beloved tropes of the genre (wounded hero, innocent heroine, courtship by secret enemy, etc). Plus, the hero’s conflict took precedence over the heroine’s, as tends to be usual in the genre today.

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            • Oh, that’s very intriguing, the idea that the hero’s conflict takes precedence over the heroine’s in today’s genre. I have to really really think about it. It’s going to haunt me: can that be?!

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            • Hehe!

              As wonderful as I found Mili of ABA, everything about the romantic arc focused on Samir: his tortured past, his relationship with his brother and mothers, and also what Mili would do when she discovers his ruse. Mili was the healer and the catalyst for his change. The story was eventually about how he’s drawn into the HEA, not so much about her arc other than the aftermath of her discovering who he was.

              This is rather common in most of the romance I’ve read. And I’ll never forget the time Angela James tweeted a request for her followers to name their most memorable heroines. The discussion quickly evolved into why most romance readers can immediately name their favorite heroes–and lots of them–but are slower to come up with a list of favorite heroines.

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