REVIEW: Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai
CW: Emotional abuse. Depiction of mental illness, including panic attacks, flashbacks and nightmares. Disordered eating is also mentioned/suggested.
Dear Alisha Rai,
I loved The Right Swipe last year and ever since have been looking forward to Katrina’s story in Girl Gone Viral.
Katrina King-Arora, a Thai-American, is a former supermodel who lives an extremely private life away from the spotlight. After she married her much older husband Hardeep Arora, she retired from modelling. When he died, she relocated to Santa Barbara and since then, has rarely left her home. Katrina has a long-standing panic disorder. She was also kidnapped when she was married and this added a whole extra layer onto her mental illness. She has been in therapy and working on getting out more, challenging herself to visit places and get out of the house. She is never going to be someone who can just pick up and go anywhere. Her mental illness is not something which will be miraculously cured; though she has learned and is learning to manage it how she needs to in order to life the life she wants. Of course, she is greatly privileged by the vast fortune left to her by Hardeep; she is not unaware of that either. I liked that the panic disorder wasn’t presented as being a result of the kidnapping. I liked that it wasn’t actually given a reason to be at all. It just was. As is often the case with mental illness, there is not always an obvious cause or even any particular cause at all. I liked that Katrina was presented as a whole person, worthy of love and happiness without having to be “fixed” in order to deserve it.
When Katrina was a model she was “managed” by her emotionally and financially abusive and controlling father. He controlled her money, her activities, her work, her diet and had some very messed up ways of doing so. (I’m no expert but I’ve included a mention of disordered eating in the CWs because, while I don’t think Katrina had an eating disorder, at least one of the references to her father in the book could be problematic for readers dealing with this issue.) After she stopped modelling, Katrina ate what she wanted and, unsurprisingly, gained weight. She is happy in her body and is always presented as beautiful – Jas certainly thinks she’s gorgeous and sexy. Sometimes Katrina has to remind herself how she feels about her body but for the most part, she accepts – no, loves – her rounded belly and her dimpled thighs. (Katrina likes her thighs better than I do mine but I nevertheless appreciate seeing beautiful women of all body types represented in romance fiction. I’m sure if I get enough of it I’ll probably even like my own thighs more. Probably.)
Jasvinder Singh is a Punjabi-American with a Mexican great-grandparent. He was an Army Ranger in Iraq. He left the military after a member of his team shot him while Jas was preventing a war crime. That person – Maguire – served some time in a military jail but was paroled. Now it looks like Maguire might be pardoned because people suck and powerful people often suck more and that is bringing a lot of things up for Jas. He has mostly “dealt with” his PTSD by stuffing everything down the memory hole but it’s not really working for him.
Jas was part of Hardeep’s security team and has known Katrina for years. He’s loved her from almost the first moment he saw her but she has been off limits. First because she was married, now because she is his boss. After Hardeep died, Katrina offered Jas employment as her bodyguard. He has since branched into cybersecurity for Katrina’s many business ventures (Katrina is a silent (secret?) entrepreneur and invests in many businesses, including Rhiannon’s Crush app from The Right Swipe) but his main role is as Katrina’s bodyguard. He oversees the rest of her security too but it is Jas who accompanies Katrina anywhere, who drives her places, who lives on her property in a guest house and is always there for her whenever she needs him. There’s no place else he’d rather be.
Jas has not opened up to anyone about his struggles with crowds, loud noises or guns and this has caused a rift between he and his family. They think he’s rejecting them by keeping his distance.
Jas is also a naturally reticent introvert. He’s very much the strong, silent type.
He’d been tense, waiting for some he’d grown up with to recognize him and stop him for an interminable amount of small talk. Small talk was the fifth horseman of the apocalypse.
Katrina has been having counseling with her therapist at a local cafe; she uses the back office with the consent of the owner. After her session she has a coffee and reads for a while in the cafe, sitting with others and enjoying some time outside the house, with the ever-watchful Jas on guard across the room. Katrina has recently decided to enter the world of online dating, having realised she wants a relationship. She gets “zings” from Jas but maybe that’s just because he’s about the only guy she sees. Also, he’s her bodyguard and probably he doesn’t see her as anything other than his employer and so she can’t make a move on him so – dating. Hanging out at the cafe is part of her first steps. On this particular day, as the cafe is busy, a man asks to share her table and they strike up a conversation. He’s handsome and charming but unfortunately, no “zings”. He asks her out; she says no. End of encounter.
Except, someone at another table has been listening and live-tweeting and #CafeBae is born. Overnight, Katrina goes viral and her privacy, security and equilibrium is thus threatened.
Because of the potential pardon of Maguire and because of the internet notoriety which threatens to ruin Katrina’s anonymity, Jas offers to take Katrina to stay at his family’s farm in Yuba City, NorCal. Jas has a house on the property and they will be isolated and safe.
For the first time in the nikkar ghar (little house), Jas and Katrina are actually living together. They are out of their usual environments and comfort zones and some of the strictures each has placed on themselves about their secret but mutual attraction are loosened. When they first arrive, late at night (or very early in the morning) Katrina is asleep so he shepherds her to a bedroom and his thoughts and actions are adorably hilarious.
It was impossible not to touch her while he removed her shoes, but he tried to remain as detached as possible, even when he had to briefly encircle her slim ankle with his hand.
Pretend it’s a dowel, or a fishing rod, or a hanger. Not a perfect round little ankle.
He didn’t dare take off her socks. If removing her shoes made him feel vaguely guilty, he didn’t want to think how pervy he’d feel for stripping wool off her bare flesh.
He carried the rest of the luggage upstairs and held his breath as he opened her bedroom door so it formed the smallest possible wedge. He shoved her suitcase inside like it was on fire, then closed the door quietly. He wasn’t getting stuck in that trap again.
While in Yuba City, Katrina helps Jas reconcile with his family and also makes some decisions about what she will do to deal with the whole #CafeBae thing and, what she will do about some other things too. Katrina is not Rhiannon. She has a very different way of getting things done. I loved that her style was celebrated as much as Rhiannon’s was in her own book. Rhiannon is far more direct and forceful in personality. Katrina is more thoughtful and cautious (I related) but once she sets her course, she will not be stopped. Katrina has a softer vibe, but she is nonetheless a steamroller.
Jas’s own mental health is also an aspect of the story. Again, there is no miracle cure.
Both Katrina and Jas, each in their own ways, accept their right to take up space, to have reasonable accommodations and be okay that they’re not superheroes. Each are also nonetheless, capable, successful and active. They just don’t expect themselves to suddenly be different people.
It takes a considerable amount of book time to get to Yuba and even more to get to the part of the romance where things turn (even a little bit) physical. It was more than halfway through the book before Katrina and Jas first kissed. I was 100% more invested in the story one this happened. That probably says something about me.
It’s not exactly that I didn’t like what I had read before; I did. But I did find it somewhat slow going and I was impatient for them to move forward in their relationship. It’s not even about on page sex to happen; it’s more that it felt like an awful lot of relationship set up and I wanted the actual relationship. One that happened, I was far less inclined to stop reading and do other things; I basically read all the way through in one sitting from there on.
I liked many things about Girl Gone Viral. I liked Katrina and Jas (together and separately) most of all and, as I said above, once they started actually getting together I was in my happy place but I also liked Jas’s interactions with Samson and Samson’s friends early in the book and with his brother Bikram later on. Their discussion about the degree of “lean” in a kiss made me laugh.
I did not know the origin of the phrase “blood is thicker than water” but now that I do I won’t forget it. Found family and biological family and adopted family are all valued in this book and celebrated in different ways, even as some aspects of family are also shown to be destructive and toxic (mainly Katrina’s father).
I liked that neither Katrina nor Jas were very sexually experienced and I liked that their sexual relationship was nuanced and interesting and not just PiV sex.
The employer/employee relationship was dealt with – albeit briefly. It wasn’t really an issue for me because they both were mature sensible people. The context was clear there there wasn’t any unfair advantage being taken of anyone.
I liked that not everything had to have an exposition or explanation; for example, Jas never asked Katrina about her marriage to Hardeep; either the reasons for it or the realities of it. It was unnecessary to him and to their relationship. However, there were some things I’d have liked more information or detail about. In particular there was a thing about Jas right at the end which felt just dropped in and I wanted to know more. It felt kind of like an afterthought.
There wasn’t all that much keeping Jas and Katrina apart and once they started their romance, it was only that Jas was so reticent about sharing his own desires that caused Katrina some moments of uncertainty. However, they worked through this and Katrina coaxed Jas to start sharing so I was confident in their HEA. I wouldn’t call Girl Gone Viral a low conflict book even so. There was a lot going on; it’s just that what was going on was external to the relationship for the most part.