REVIEW: Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev
Trigger / content warnings: Spoiler: Show
Dear Sonali Dev,
As is evident from its title, your recent novel, the start of a series about the Raje family, is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I know what some readers of this review must be thinking: Does the world really need another take on P&P? Retellings of Austen’s satirical novel are thick on the ground, and have been since the classic novel was revived by the film adaptation starring Keira Knightley and the success of such retellings as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.
But Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors has fresh elements to offer. Not only is the novel set in the modern-day Bay Area’s Indian-American community, but the gender roles are flipped. Trisha Raje, the heroine, is not the Elizabeth Bennett figure, but rather the novel’s Mr. Darcy—a proud neurosurgeon, occasionally impatient enough to give an impression of arrogance. And DJ Caine, the hero, a skilled chef British chef, is the novel’s other main protagonist. He is quick to judge and slow to forgive, like Elizabeth Bennett in P&P.
The conflict between DJ and Trisha begins when they first meet. DJ is catering a party for Trisha’s brother, Yash, a primary candidate in California’s gubernatorial race. It’s very important that he impress Trisha’s mother and her sister, Nisha, because they have bigger catering jobs to offer him and can also spread the word about his cooking skills. DJ badly needs more jobs to pay for a surgery that will save his sister’s life.
The day they meet is a rough day for Trisha. First she has to tell her patient that the surgery that could save her life will cost her her eyesight (Trisha’s patient is none other than DJ’s sister, Emma). Second, just when she decides to attend the party as an overture to her family, from whom she’s been estranged, she is confronted by her father. The elder Dr. Raje, dubbed HRH (His Royal Highness—he has a title in India) by his children, demands Trisha avoid her one-time bad-news friend, Julia Wickham, who has recently been sniffing around the hospital where Trisha and her dad both work.
After raising DJ’s hackles by invading the kitchen in search of sustenance while he’s working there, Trisha offends him further by almost knocking over a hot pot of sauce as they argue and refusing to catch it. Trisha says, “Do you know what these hands are worth?” and DJ catches it himself, burning his own hands. He is furious; aren’t his hands worth just as much, equally important to protect, and isn’t his job no less valuable than Trisha’s?
Things get worse when Emma, an artist, rejects medical care and insists that she would rather let her terminal cancer take its course than go blind. Julia Wickham, now a television reporter, contacts Emma about doing an interview on the topic. Julia has an ugly history with Trisha and with Trisha’s brother Yash, and Trisha feels honor-bound to warn DJ to be wary of Julia. DJ is outraged once again. He has warm feelings toward Julia and distinctly negative ones toward Trisha.
In addition to the main plot, there’s a subplot about Trisha’s sister, Nisha. Nisha has a history of multiple miscarriages. She and her husband Neel only stopped trying to conceive the second child Nisha desperately wants when Neel told her he couldn’t take their losses anymore. Now Neel is about to fly to England with their one daughter just as Nisha discovers she’s pregnant, and Nisha fears that Neel will blame her when he finds out. The situation is all the more fraught because while in England Neel may meet up with his ex, a woman he loved passionately in the past, and Nisha fears that Neel only settled for her.
The book proceeds from there, riffing on P&P while exploring the characters’ situations and relationships (not only with each other but also with their family members) in a very different milieu than P&P’s and one that brings a lot of freshness to the table.
I had a lot of issues with the book anyway. Trisha’s background—unlike DJ, whose mum was rejected by his father’s family for being Rwandan, she had not known as much prejudice or financial hardship, and had grown up in a larger, warmer family—was portrayed in more detail, with what felt like greater authority. DJ was a more archetypical character, the school-of-hard-knocks graduate with a chip on his shoulder.
I usually love a gender flip, but it didn’t work so well here. Elizabeth’s role in P&P is to be the prejudiced one and when that trait is given to the male lead character instead of the female protagonist it’s a lot less appealing. A heroine with a low opinion of the hero works much better than the reverse because it places the hero in the pursuer role and that gives the heroine more power and agency.
I liked Trisha very much (more on that later). I was less keen on DJ for the reasons mentioned above. I’m not a fan of the suspicious and judgemental hero type.
I was even less keen on Emma. In fact, Emma’s characterization annoyed and troubled me because it felt manipulative. She was the grown-up equivalent of a plot moppet in the sense that I could see the author’s hand trying to make me love her and to use her character to make me anxious for DJ.
I understood how important her art was to Emma, but the notion that it was better to die than to lose one’s eyesight was offensive. To be clear, this was Emma’s notion, not that of the main characters (their view was quite the opposite), but it still offended my sensibilities. The premise itself struck me as ableist.
On a more minor note, the book was inaccurate on the topic of malignant brain tumors and surgery, and since I recognized that early on, this bothered me as well. But I appreciated the author’s note for acknowledging that liberties were taken.
An even smaller nitpick–while I’d like to agree with DJ’s sentiment that the condition of his chef’s hands matters just as much as that of Trisha’s surgeon’s hands, I really don’t. DJ’s work as a skilled chef is very valuable and depends on his hands just as much as Trisha’s, absolutley. But the state of Trisha’s hands is more important. If DJ’s hands fail him, people will lose out on a mind-blowing meal, it’s true. But if Trisha’s hands fail her, people’s brains could be damaged on her operating table. These things are not the same.
There’s also a scene in the book that strained my credulity. DJ is stopped by a police officer while trying to break into a car that a friend loaned to him after Trisha has locked the keys in the car. DJ feared this very thing and refused to break into the car, but Trisha, who had to make it back in time for a surgery, pressured him into it. Okay, I could buy this much. As I said above, surgery can be crucial. But needless to say, it wasn’t Trisha’s most shining moment, even if she did try hard to atone for it.
What I couldn’t buy is that Trisha did this in ignorance of the deadly consequences police stops can have for black people. For fuck’s sake, not only was she a person of color, her own brother was running for the governorship of California! Her bubble couldn’t possibly be so isolating that news of the Black Lives Matter movement would not have reached her ears.
So, what worked about this book? First, the authorial voice is terrific. The book is written in omniscient narration, not something I see much anymore, and especially not in contemporary romance. Deep POV has its place but it has taken over the genre and the unusual viewpoint style added freshness to the reading experience.
Second, I adored Trisha. She was such a lovely character. A lot of what DJ mistook for arrogance was social awkwardness. She wasn’t good with social cues or at expressing herself, but she always meant well. And I felt her pride in herself and her work was not misplaced, too. She deserved to feel proud of her achievements. Trisha’s past estrangement from her family over her past with Julia and Yash just made her more sympathetic to me; her relatives didn’t always treat her as well as she deserved so the expectation that she should put up with their borderline abuse was unfair.
Third, the book is diverse. I enjoyed the milieu of the Bay Area’s well-to-do Indian-American families and the mouthwatering descriptions of DJ’s culinary creations, which were inspired by his multicultural heritage.
Fourth, the secondary romance between Nisha and Neel made for moving and emotional reading. I won’t reveal how all this got worked out, but it was a terrific storyline.
Fifth, I loved the secret story behind the first meeting of Trisha’s parents, and though it didn’t make me love her dad (I don’t think anything could have after the years of cold demands he had presented Trisha with) as I think it was meant to, it did make me like him a bit better. More importantly, it was a terrific backstory for Trisha’s mom and explored a little-portrayed aspect of the film industry.
Sixth, the P&P retelling aspect of the novel was excellent. The book did not have the satirical wit of P&P but by introducing Julia Wickham, Trisha’s ex-friend who had the potential to sabotage Trisha and DJ’s lives as well as their relationship, and by riffing on the themes of P&P, this gender-flipped version captured the feel of P&P well. Far better, in fact, than most other P&P retellings I have come across.
It is tough to grade the book because it’s not very successful as a romance. DJ doesn’t come around to liking Trisha until about as late in the book as it takes Elizabeth Bennett to regard Darcy with admiration in P&P. In a romance novel, that’s too late for the hero to realize that the heroine is likable. In addition, Trisha and DJ aren’t in the same scenes very often. And there’s only a single sex scene, one that feels tacked on.
So—if a reader is looking for a satisfying romance, Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors might not be the book for that reader. As a romance, I would give this novel a C. But readers who are willing to forgo a fulfilling romance for a good P&P retelling might find the book a lot more satisfying. As a P&P retelling, I’d grade Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors a B+.