A Bollywood Affair by Sonali Dev

AbollywoodaffairWhy I read it:  I received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.

What it’s about: (from Goodreads)  Mili Rathod hasn’t seen her husband in twenty years—not since she was promised to him at the age of four. Yet marriage has allowed Mili a freedom rarely given to girls in her village. Her grandmother has even allowed her to leave India and study in America for eight months, all to make her the perfect modern wife. Which is exactly what Mili longs to be—if her husband would just come and claim her.

Bollywood’s favorite director, Samir Rathod, has come to Michigan to secure a divorce for his older brother. Persuading a naïve village girl to sign the papers should be easy for someone with Samir’s tabloid-famous charm. But Mili is neither a fool nor a gold-digger. Open-hearted yet complex, she’s trying to reconcile her independence with cherished traditions. And before he can stop himself, Samir is immersed in Mili’s life—cooking her dal and rotis, escorting her to her roommate’s elaborate Indian wedding, and wondering where his loyalties and happiness lie.

What worked for me (and what didn’t):  I admit I’m not a big Harlequin Presents reader.  While I don’t mind reading about the occasional rich alphahole, many of the HPs I’ve tried have not worked for me because the power differential in the relationship is too great – perhaps I’ve tried the wrong ones but the alphahole vs the innocent doormat ingenue mostly doesn’t work for me (Not that I’m saying that all HPs are like that.  I don’t think that is the case).  A Bollywood Affair isn’t a HP, but I think it’s a close cousin.  It seems to me to fit within the common tropes and themes within the line, while at the same time being somewhat fresh and different to the usual fare. I didn’t personally find that it subverted tropes.  It seemed to me to stick fairly closely within them but it mostly did this in an entertaining way which I enjoyed, but did not adore.

Samir isn’t entirely an alphahole – in fact, he only seems to be a dick when it comes to his (many) hookups/girlfriends.  They’re one at a time but they’re meaningless and he doesn’t appear to think too kindly of the women who get involved with him.  They’re clingy and emotional and he’s not interested.  He is however, entirely devoted to his family and from all reports, an excellent film director who gets along with all the crew, from key grips and best boys right up to Assistant Director.  He is wealthy and demanding but those things in themselves don’t make him a jerk.  When I was reflecting on the book before writing this review, it struck me that he was almost entirely a really nice guy – in addition to be gorgeous, kind, generous, loving, talented, skilled and wealthy.  He is also tortured because of course.  But his jerkishness is confined to one small area and when I thought about it later it really didn’t fit with any of the rest of him.  I suppose his womanising ways are a result of his childhood trauma  and Mili’s presence in his life helped him work through that trauma so the behaviour is no longer “required” – that is the trope – but I found it a fairly long bow to draw.  He does form meaningful and lasting relationships with all manner of people before meeting Mili – it is only in his romantic life that he was challenged.

Mili was painfully innocent but at the same time so genuinely delightful it was difficult to hold that against her.  She is smart, resourceful and brave but also not without some faults of her own. If she had been only sweetness and light I think it may have been too sugary for me but she was also impetuous, stubborn and shamelessly manipulative when it comes to getting her way.  In the wrong hands she could have become a caricature but she was not.  She had led a very sheltered life and had one close relative for much of it.  Married at the age of four, she was raised on the notion that her husband would come for her and that it was her duty to become all that a good wife should be in order to be ready for him.  This formed the backbone of her life.

Virat, her husband (who was, I think, seven at the time of the wedding) had thought the ceremony annulled the year after it occurred.  In good faith he fell in love with Rima and married her and they are now expecting their first child.  When Virat is unable, for good reason, to travel to America where Mili is studying to request she sign the forms to annul their marriage so that his child is not born a bastard, Virat asks Samir to undertake the task for him.

Samir is suffering from writer’s block in relation to a big script which is overdue.  He has finally been given financing and approval to make the movie of his dreams but he can’t find his words.  He travels to America and in a fairly farcical meet cute, blunders into Mili’s life.  Mili’s roommate Ridhi has eloped with her boyfriend and Mili is expecting Ridhi’s family to come asking questions.  When she sees Samir, she assumes he is a relative of Ridhi’s and it is some time before this misunderstanding is cleared up.  In the meantime, Samir has suddenly found wonderful words to write and has become quite fascinated with Miss Mili.

He gives her a false name – the reasons for this are a little thin but I was prepared to go with it for the story. Still, he does deceive her for much of the book and when the truth comes out (as it inevitably does), it causes a significant amount of pain for both of them.  Because I saw how much Samir genuinely adored Mili I was able to forgive him but I wonder if some will think he doesn’t grovel enough?

Mili is amusingly oblivious at times and at others, wonderfully perceptive.  Like here, where she and Samir are talking about the plot of his movie and she’s making a case for him to change it.

 “You can’t learn anything from losing someone you love. Any lesson you learn from that isn’t a lesson. It’s a compromise with life. A lie you tell yourself.”

I can’t tell you how much that resonated with me.

While much of the story is set in America, it is full of Indian culture – the way Mili and Ridhi interact, the food they eat, the way they celebrate weddings, the intimately strong family connections and bonds which I think are less common (at least in my experience) in Western society.  It seemed to me to be an insider’s view and I asked a friend who knows far more about it than I do and I’m assured that it is an authentic representation.  It is not, of course, a complete representation.  It never could be.  But what it did represent was not fetishised or mocked and it was realistic I believe.  What was interesting to me (well, among the things) were the differences between the various areas of India and the prejudices that exist about them.  South Indians had a particular view of Northern Indians and vice versa.  It was delightfully similar to my life and my experience and I found it very relatable.  I loved the description of the wedding rituals and the food and the language, the snippets about Bollywood and the differences portrayed between the more urban Indian people as compared to the rural ones. As Mili herself says:

“Isn’t it amazing, Samir, how we’re both from India but our Indias are so different?’

It felt very accessible to this reader and also interesting and different to what I usually read.

A lot of people are saying amazing things about this book.  I certainly enjoyed it very much but I’m not sure if it’s because I’m not a HP reader and I’m perhaps not as familiar with some of the “code” or whether it’s because when I do read HPs often they don’t work for me, but in any event, while I liked it and it was good, I didn’t think it was an A read.  Some of Samir’s characterisation didn’t jibe with me and I thought the ending was a bit rushed. I wondered what Mili was going to do now – would she work? What work would she do?  Would she continue her education? These things went unanswered and I was curious. There was also unfortunate Hymen Misplacement Syndrome (TM Smart Bitches).  My experience may also be coloured by the read being somewhat interrupted – it took me nearly a week to finish and it’s only 200 pages or so.  I was caught up in Twitter Trauma and Blog Blowups and reading was unfortunately taking a back seat.

What else? It probably says something (bad) about me that I was kind of surprised at the swearing in the book.  My perception of Bollywood movies is that they are squeaky clean and you know, I just don’t think I’ve seen or read before a depiction of Indian men (eg Samir) swearing like a bricklayer. But it’s pretty silly of me to have perceived that there is no swearing in India. (*smacks self in head*)  (I mean, I have South Asian friends on Twitter who swear all the time occasionally!.)  In these small ways my eyes are opened and I find little hidden prejudices within me and root them out.  So I appreciated the broad view of Indian people provided in the book.  

I‘d recommend A Bollywood Affair because in addition to having an entertaining romance,  it also depicts a different culture than the average western romance novel.  It is respectful of the religious practices of the people involved and, I thought, the culture it portrayed.  It is a sweet romance with funny moments and some pathos (remember, Samir has to work out his childhood abandonment issues and trauma).  What happened to Samir at the hands of his grandfather was awful and it seemed to me it was eeeeevil and therefore (perhaps wrongly, but it is what it is) I found it a little unbelievable.  I appreciated the sensitive treatment of mental illness and the lack of judgment of the narrative when it came to how Samir came to live in India with his half-brother.  While it probably won’t make my top 10 of 2014, I’m certainly very glad I read it.

Grade: B


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