Dear Ms. Schiller:
I’ve enjoyed every book that you’ve written to varying degrees. When this was submitted for review, I started it right away.
The first half of the book was a bit of a struggling as we are told repeatedly that Ethan Callahan, hot math major, has fallen in heavy lust for Meena Kapoor, a senior economics student. But the second half saves the story and becomes a unique, sometimes painful, but enduring romance.
Ethan and Meena attend Stanford and each are in their last year share an Advanced Statistics. What I found a bit strange was how forced Ethan’s internal narrative was as to how beautiful he thought Meena was, how he had to meet her, and was desperate to have any kind of interaction with her at all.
Her name was still a mystery, so I just called her Sunshine. I’d never called a girl that before, but it fit because she made me feel warm, calm, and happy. I’d never seen her smile, but I knew it would be a beautiful sight….
I wasn’t capable of more than a few words in the presence of that sexy mouth of hers. It was ironic how something that created speech made me speechless.
For Meena’s part, she thinks he’s beautiful, charming, and engaging but he’s not for her. Meena will enter into an arranged marriage, as per her family and cultural tradition, following her graduation from Stanford. Meena’s staunch belief in the importance of the arranged marriage and Ethan’s more romantic, Western notions of couplehood form the unique conflict for this book. And importantly, Meena is not merely reciting childhood dictum. She believes in the arranged marriage. (And really it is important for her to have conviction or the conflict is a false construct).
“Yes, I can deny anyone I don’t like. It’s kind of cool in a way. I can ask any question, no matter how private. I can ask them how much they make, what their deepest fears are, who they idolize. Things that might take you twenty dates to figure out, I’ll know in one meeting.”
Ethan shook his head, keeping his eyes fixed on the lake. “You’re missing the best part, Sunshine.”
He ran his fingers through his hair, and it miraculously managed to fall right back in place. I had to look away from him. Ethan’s voice was quiet, but his words coursed through me like a physical presence, gravelly and deep. “It’s not the knowing. It’s the finding out.”
Ethan is undeterred. He describes himself as having success because he knows how to break big goals down into little steps. Step 1. Get Meena to smile. Step 2. Get Meena to laugh. etc.
And ultimately, no matter how hard she tries to resist, Meena falls for Ethan but she tells him that their love and their relationship, whatever it may be, has a time limit. When they graduate it will be over. Ethan accepts this, not because he believes in that, but because he is convinced he can change her mind.
But we, the reader, know Meena’s mind whereas Ethan does not so he doesn’t see (or is unwilling to see) her very real belief that Ethan is a wonderful diversion, that she’ll have significant heartbreak but that her family cultural values have meaning beyond a one year romance in college. The time limit lends a bittersweetness to each romantic encounter.
Meena and Ethan become well articulated characters. Ethan’s very logical. He writes pros and cons lists, for instance, but underneath he is quite romantic. The New Year’s Eve gift was the perfect blend of his thinking. Meena is bound up by guilt over a teenage mistake and her need to make up for it. Much of her actions are driven by the loss of her brother and the resulting pain it inflicted on her family.
There are several secondary characters who affect Meena and Ethan. They aren’t sequel bait or orbiting satellites having only tangential importance. One of Meena’s friends is Indian and is struggling with his sexual identity. On the opposite spectrum is a girl who readily has sex. I felt she was castigated overly much for her sexual freedom, although I understood it to be set in contrast with Meena’s more rigid upbringing. I just wish that Meena’s female friend wasn’t the only one villainized for her sex driven behavior.
I was a little surprised at how readily Meena disposed of her virginity with Ethan. She admitted virginity wasn’t a requirement of an arranged marriage but because she’d refrained from sex for so long, the easy capitulation to Ethan confused me.
The talk about arranged marriages was well done because it wasn’t villified. Instead it showed Meena experiencing both range of choices–from the bad to the very good. In the end, this was a battle between heart and head. Meena has to decide whether Ethan is more important to her or whether her family, her cultural values, and everything she’s ever held dear is worth tossing aside for one single individual.
The second half made this book a worthwhile read. The deep dive into cultural beliefs and the examination of the emotion of love was unique and refreshing. B-