Miss 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.