Dear Ms. Marsh,
I am always on the lookout for India-set and India-related historical and contemporary romances, so when I saw your new contemporary was forthcoming from Entangled Publishing, I was intrigued. You’ve written a number of well-received category romances at Harlequin, so although Entangled is a new press, you are a proven author. But while there were aspects of the book I really enjoyed, in the end this was a frustrating read for me.
The story revolves around two Indian-American women, Shari and Amrita, who live in New York and are close friends. Amrita’s parents have arranged a marriage for her with an Indian man who lives in Mumbai, and since she wants no part of it, Amrita seeks Shari’s help in sabotaging their plans. Shari is unemployed after ending a yearlong affair with her married boss at the law firm where she worked. Amrita talks Shari into impersonating her in Mumbai, hoping that Shari’s behavior will convince the groom-to-be and his family that Amrita is unsuitable and therefore back out of the agreement. Shari is reluctant, but she allows herself to be talked into the scheme and flies to Mumbai, where Amrita’s Aunt Anjali, who is in on the deception, takes her under her wing. Shari’s impersonation is just the beginning of a series of events involving Amrita, her putative fiancé Rakesh Rama, and Rakesh’s handsome and sexy British business partner, Drew Lansford. The setting moves from New York to Mumbai (including scenes at a Bollywood film studio) and back to New York again, and the plot cycles from Amrita and Shari to Shari in Mumbai, back to Shari, Amrita and various other characters in New York, with short stops elsewhere.
The novel straddles the line between chick-lit and contemporary romance. Amrita and Shari’s close friendship is front and center, and many of their scenes involve drinking pitchers of mojitos and talking about their love lives. While Shari’s romance with Drew is the main relationship, Amrita has a pleasant if predictable secondary romantic storyline. The fact that Shari has just ended a year-long affair with a married man who lavished gifts and money on her contributes to the Sex and the City vibe, which some readers may enjoy but I find a bit played out. Shari knows she made a big mistake, but it was never clear to me why she fell for the snake in the first place. Drew is requisite hero material, though, and that relationship is sweeter and more characteristic of a standard romance novel. The major external impediments to the HEA are resolved relatively straightforwardly, and the final hurdle has more to do with Shari’s personal growth, which contributes to the chick lit feel of the book.
The setting is quite well depicted, and there is plenty of local flavor to make New York and Mumbai come alive. The heat, color, and dynamism of Mumbai are nicely portrayed. There are some false notes that will probably only resonate for readers who are extremely familiar with Mumbai, with a couple of exceptions. For example, two of the places Aunt Anjali points out to Shari are the Taj Mahal Hotel and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus). These are major landmarks, but they are also two of the main sites of the 2008 Mumbai bombings. It was strange to read a book set in 2010/11 that talked about them as if nothing had happened, especially since the repairs to the Taj were only recently completed. I can’t imagine a Mumbaikar (not Mumbaians as the book has them) introducing someone to them without the subject coming up. I understand why there are no references in the book (talk about ruining the mood), but then maybe other tourist sites would have been better choices.
Two other issues I had, though, are more general annoyances. First, everyone, and I mean everyone, in this book gets a nickname. At first it fits the breezy style, but then it becomes wearying and finally it got to the fingernails-on-a-blackboard level of irritation. When Shari meets Rakesh for the first time at his family’s home, she is introduced to his mother and sisters:
“Hi, I’m Pooja.” The eldest, a miniature rotund Anu, had a shy smile and my predilection for nicknames instantly dubbed her Pooh: round, soft-spoken, cuddly.
“Divya.” The middle one flicked a dismissive glance over me and gave an imperceptible shrug, more intent on patting her sleek hair and studying her nails. Definitely Diva.
The youngest enveloped me in a brief hug. “I’m so thrilled to meet you, Sister. I’m Shruti and if there’s anything you need during your stay here, don’t hesitate to ask.”
I might’ve been impressed by such an effusive welcome if I hadn’t caught the furtive glance she shot her mother, seeking approval. Her expression begged ‘have I done well, Mommy?’ Shrewd Shruti, knowing who controlled the family and how to stay on her good side: she became Shrew.
I’d met the three stepsisters and the fairy godmother—of my nightmares.
Why? What have these poor women done? Nothing, really at this point in the novel. But they remain Pooh, Diva and Shrew to the end. And the mother, Anu, is always a cow. In fact, and this is my second major complaint, all the women are portrayed in unflattering ways. Aunt Anjali is vulgar and gobbles ladoos (Indian sweets). Drew’s mother behaves badly to Shari and is given a nasty nickname for the duration. I’m not looking for perfection or role models in my romance reading, but the drumbeat of insults became really depressing.
The men don’t escape the nickname fairy either: Shari’s ex is the Toad, and the hero, most unfortunately, is Bollywood Boy. For me, at least, it didn’t do much for his appeal.
These shortcomings are really a shame, because there is much to like in the novel. The relationship between Amrita and Shari was well developed and believable (if excessively rum-drenched). Rakesh and Drew were both really decent men. And while Shari’s path to independence and maturity strained credulity and screwed up the pacing of the last quarter of the book, it was well within the bounds of the genre. Shari and Drew’s relationship could have used more on-page time, but what was there was very enjoyable.
For readers who like books that straddle the chick-lit/romance boundary, this could be a fun read. For me, the fun was undercut by the depiction of some of the women. I’m sure the intent was to write clever and witty, albeit caricatured, supporting characters, and I tried to read them that way, but I failed. Dial down the descriptions of women as waddling cows, and the underlying sweetness is more likely to shine through.
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