REVIEW: Year of the Chick by Romi Moondi
I picked this book up because it sounded like something a little different from my usual fare, and in an effort to get out of my never-ending historical romance slump, different is a concept I’m embracing. In general, it’s not a concept I’m having great luck with, and sad to say, Year of the Chick was no exception.
Romi Narindra is a 27-year-old native of Toronto, working a boring desk job and dreaming of a writing career. She lives with her older sister, but both sisters are obligated to spend every weekend in the suburbs with their traditional Indian parents. Over the Christmas holiday, Romi’s parents begin to nag her about her weight (a familiar theme) and finding a husband (also familiar, though her sister, being the elder, usually bears the brunt there). Compelled to undergo an impromptu kitchen weigh-in, Romi discovers she’s gained 15 pounds in the past year (her mother wants her to lose 20, though) and is horrified. She’s even more horrified to be told that she has the coming year to get into shape so she can start being shopped around on the marriage mart.
Romi is incapable of standing up to her parents, so she decides on a passive plan to avoid an arranged marriage: she will spend the year working on exercising more and losing weight (a goal she wants for herself, anyway) and also try to find a prospective husband her own way. She also gets back to writing, starting a blog and finding a long distance admirer, a hunky Brit living in Barcelona named James.
I’ve read that the inspiration for the book came from a blog that the author started, and it’s clear that the novel is autobiographical to some degree, starting with the heroine sharing the author’s first name. This makes it hard to criticize the first person narrator, lest I seem to be making implicit criticisms of the author. Unfortunately, there’s a lot to criticize about Romi the character.
Romi is whiny. She hates her job. She doesn’t like either of her siblings. She mostly seems to be afraid of her parents. She likes her friends when they validate her feelings, but gets angry when they don’t. (She also spends a lot of time comparing herself to these friends physically and whining about how much more attractive they are.) She disparages other women often (“sluts”, usually) and a lot of the men she encounters (many are branded “losers”). She is harsh on herself as well, considering herself a loser too. She even expresses at one point that she hates her name. Essentially, Romi reveals herself through her first person narration to be a very unhappy, bitter person, but she doesn’t seem to ever realize it:
“And it’s not like we have any dateable guys in the office,” added Amy.
“But you already have a boyfriend,” I said. I hated hearing people share my annoyance, when I knew for a fact they were happy.
Is that what empathy is? Then send it back.
Before I could curse her out loud, my mind flooded over with images of jerky office guys, married office guys, and recycled office man-whores. Ugh. Amy was definitely lucky.
Then there’s James. Romi creates an honestly delusional fantasy romance with this guy who she doesn’t even really know. They exchange emails and eventually phone calls. Some of James’ motivations do seem unclear, so I can cut her a little slack for wondering if there is more there (it’s hard to know since we’re only getting Romi’s side of the story, and she tends to tell rather than show). The degree to which she builds an imaginary relationship, when it doesn’t appear that the two even really flirt, made me uncomfortable, especially when Romi refuses to read the signals that are staring her in the face.
One of the other ways this felt like an autobiographical story was the inclusion of little vignettes that didn’t seem to go anywhere. A friend of Romi’s starts seeing a guy but breaks things off abruptly when he acts inappropriately during a Skype session. Okay, so – what? It wasn’t a funny or interesting subplot, so I didn’t see the point of it. (Also, while the guy definitely overstepped boundaries, the way Romi and her friend react felt overblown – I don’t think showing a woman your erection over Skype when you’re dating her makes you a “pervert.” The book has a weirdly old-fashioned attitude about sex. Romi also doesn’t like going to the beach because she thinks most peoples’ bodies are “disgusting.”) These vignettes felt true to life, but since they didn’t add anything to the story, they also felt mundane.
Meanwhile, plot points that feel like they should be better fleshed out aren’t. It’s never clear, at all, why Romi and her sister don’t get along – they just don’t. I didn’t need a dramatic backstory and a big reconciliation, but some detail would have helped me empathize with Romi. Were they close as children but grew apart? Is her sister just really hard to get along with? (The latter is suggested by things Romi says about her sister but since it never rises above the level of, “Oh, my sister’s such a bitch,” it didn’t really help explain much.)
Romi’s sister has been acting mysteriously, staying out late at night, and Romi figures she has a boyfriend. Meanwhile, her parents are trying to force the sister to get engaged to some stranger they’ve found for her. The big revelation finally comes: yes, the sister does have a boyfriend, and he’s Indian, and they get engaged, and now her parents are happy and planning a wedding. We never even meet the boyfriend or hear anything more about it (except that Romi’s parents are hip-deep in wedding plans). It just feels weirdly disconnected – I had assumed that the sister would turn out to be a lesbian or be dating an unsuitable guy or…something. Not just this build-up suggestive of some surprise and unexpected twist that just fizzles out into nothingness. (The reason, incidentally, that I keep referring to her as “the sister” is because I don’t think her name is mentioned more than twice in the novel and I can’t remember it.)
Romi previously had a long-distance romance with another Brit whom she met in Toronto but who moved back to England, met someone else and subsequently broke things off. This was another storyline I wanted to know more about, but it’s only referenced in passing. Given her behavior with James, I started to wonder if the relationship existed mostly in Romi’s mind. At times she seems upset about the breakup, but since we’re told nothing about the guy as a person, I felt like it was mostly a matter of Romi being unhappy with being single.
I think one can take real-life events and write semi-autobiographically about them as fiction – authors do it all the time – but I also think you need to work a little bit to shape the narrative to something that makes sense to the reader. The gun introduced in the first act needs to go off in the third (to use a probably extreme example), even if that’s not what happened in real life; that, or just don’t bring up the damn gun in the first place.
I was interested in reading about Romi’s relationship with her parents and how her upbringing clashed with the Canadian culture she grew up in. I hesitate to blame the author for my failure to connect with or really understand Romi’s POV. I don’t know what, if anything, would have made her dilemma come alive for me, but I found myself annoyed with Romi’s spinelessness and with the way her parents ran roughshod over her, and then annoyed with myself for feeling that way. Maybe what I just needed was a bit more self-awareness on Romi’s part – the only consequence she mentions is that if she doesn’t do what her parents say, she fears she’ll be disowned. I wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be a joke or exaggeration, or not (I mean, I know that that’s the reality for some children, but it wasn’t clear to me if it was hyperbole in Romi’s case). What it boils down to, I think, is that Romi was self-obsessive while never being self-reflective – she managed to think a lot about herself and her dramas (real and manufactured) and yet never evince any self-awareness.
I felt that Romi was supposed to be snarky-funny, but since I didn’t find her funny or charming, her observations often came off as bitchy instead. An example: she complains about her employer a lot, including about the happy hours they organize at local pubs after work and the quality of gift baskets they give out at Christmas:
“Do you know…how much…it disappoints me, that our employer gives us THIS as a Christmas gift?” I hauled out the heavy cardboard box from underneath my desk, setting it down on my lap. “I mean, lo0k at this; generic salsa, and gourmet chocolate cookies that don’t even appear to be made from real chocolate.” I sneered as I set each item on my desk. “And wait, there’s more! Some ugly-ass wooden tray that weighs ten pounds, a bottle of olive oil, and some cheese spread that was packaged god knows where and when. I bet these are all a bunch of reject products from the warehouse!”
I can totally see myself bitching about the same things (though I never get gift baskets from my employer, nor a chance to drink on their dime, so maybe I wouldn’t be quite that ungrateful), but the way she does it is just so bratty and….mean. I can also relate to her procrastinating at work but somehow she comes off so badly that I ended up judging her for being such a lousy employee.
The prose really could have benefited from some polishing – in addition to a lot of instances of awkward phrasing (“his voice was leaving traces of annoyance in the air”), the author has a tendency to overuse quotation marks. It’s not quite up to this level; it’s more a matter of overuse and borderline unnecessary use (Romi’s friend tells her, “You’re being an ‘alarmist'”). It really started to bug me after a while; it felt like a hallmark of amateurish writing.
Finally, the book doesn’t really end with any sort of growth or resolution on Romi’s part; instead, it’s something of a cliffhanger ending for the next book in the series. The title gave me a sense that the book would deal with the heroine’s learning to focus inward to achieve happiness, or that at least she’d end up empowered in some way. Romi didn’t learn anything; she was marginally less miserable at the end of the book than at the beginning, but only because she got what she wanted (attention from a cute guy!). My grade for Year of the Chick is a D.