Sunday 21 February 2016

#CBR8 Book 15: "The Bollywood Bride" by Sonali Dev

Page count: 352 pages
Rating: 2.5 stars

Ria Parkar is a celebrated Bollywood star, frequently playing the innocent ingenue who ends up the bride. Professionally she's intensely private, revealing very little about herself. When a paparazzi gets an incriminating photo of her looking deranged and as if she's about to jump off a ledge (she was retrieving her phone), Ria is worried that all her deep dark secrets will be uncovered. Her cousin, who she was raised along-side, is getting married in Chicago, and she's dreading her return there, she can't disappoint him. Chicago is where she has the happiest memories of her childhood, but it's also means facing Vikram, her childhood friend, who also became her first lover and the man whose heart she completely crushed when she went into the Bollywood movie business.

Of course Vikram hasn't gotten over Ria, but generally does his best to prove to her and everyone how unconcerned he is by her presence, flaunting his new, young girlfriend as much as possible. As far as he knows, Ria callously discarded their love and sold her soul to become a star, ignoring the summers they'd spent together since she was a child and their future hopes of happiness. Ria has never been able to tell him about the reasons she was raised by her aunt and uncle and why she had to find a way to make a lot of money really fast after her father died. He has no idea of the role his ambitious mother played in driving Ria away and now keeps lashing out to her, without Ria having the energy to fight back. It's quite clear that they both have intense feelings for one another and it's only a matter of time before they reignite the old passion they shared.

The Bollywood Bride won the poll to select the first Cannonball Book Club book of the year. It wasn't the one I voted for, but it was a book by an author I'd heard a lot of positive things about. Sonali Dev's A Bollywood Affair was raved about on a number of romance review sites that I followed after its release in 2014 and I bought it when it became available for sale, but as per usual, it's now lingering unread on my TBR shelf. Still, the stand alone follow up seemed like a good place to start. I like discovering new authors and try to branch out in my romance reading every so often. Indian culture and Bollywood are not areas I know much about. My one experience of inter-cultural romance of that kind pretty much comes from Bend It Like Beckham. I want readers of this review to know I was excited to start this book. I really did try to keep an open mind.

The book was really hard going in the first half. I didn't warm to Ria much as a character and I was frankly completely appalled by Vikram's behaviour when we finally met him. The supporting cast, Ria's aunt and uncle, her cousin, his fiancee, Vikram's girlfriend and the big, boisterous extended family that surrounded them were fine. There was just a little bit too much of the "woe is me" to Ria and far too much of the epic douche-canoe with latent anger issues about Vikram. The truth about why Ria was raised by her aunt and uncle in Chicago when she didn't attend a series of boarding schools in India during term time, and why she was unable to speak for a full year in her childhood, is gradually revealed, and has a lot of the Gothic horror feel to it. I don't really want to spoil what it is, but it's also the reason why Ria had to come up with a way to earn money fast once her father died, and unlike what Vikram thinks, it was not really a very fun or glamorous way to get into show business. Let's just say that the things Ria had to do to get her first starring role in Bollywood may be triggering to some readers.

Vikram grew up with Ria and her cousin (whose name I cannot be bothered to look up). In fact, he's whatshisface's cousin on the other side of the family. His friendship is what finally broke Ria out of the trauma she was suffering as a child and made her start speaking again, and as they grew older, their friendship became heady and intoxicating first love. Vikram's parents are incredibly successful and famous and he's on track to becoming a doctor. Then Ria's dad dies, she goes to his funeral, discovers all of the horrible skeletons in the family closet and Vikram's mum makes it abundantly clear that Ria isn't going to drag her precious family legacy down by thinking she has a future with Vikram. Not that Ria tells Vikram any of this. Nope, she believes that the deep dark family secrets make her into a ticking time bomb and that she'll just ruin Vikram's life sooner or later. She therefore makes him believe that she's over him and even watches as he's beaten up by studio thugs.

Now, ten years later, she's still carrying the burdens of her family secrets and having to pretend that she's super happy and successful and completely unaffected by seeing Vikram again, even when their first encounter back in Chicago is her walking in on him making out with his girlfriend. They keep having really awkward scenes together until Vikram finally dumps his poor girlfriend and decides to pitch woo at Ria again. He no longer cares why she dumped him way back when, he just wants to be with her. Ria still has those secrets, though, and leaves Chicago the second the wedding is over. Then the scandalous photos of her possibly being suicidal are released, all her dirty secrets are uncovered and her career as she knows it is probably over.

I honestly don't know if it's the fact that I am from a Western, middle class background with little knowledge of Indian culture that made it so difficult for me to get into this book. At first, I thought Ria might be a bit of a whiner about her family issues, but as the true extent of the horrors she and other family members suffered, I got that things were actually pretty bad and she was probably right to be a bit fragile and anxious. Yet I don't understand why she couldn't get more professional help regarding said issues and why she couldn't be more honest, at least with those closest to her. I get that there may be a stigma attached in other cultures, but I'm not saying she should be open to the press, just that a couple of conversations with Vikram probably could have solved a whole load of problems.

So while I didn't really like Ria at first, I sort of warmed to her eventually, even as I kept wanting to facepalm at all the stupid decisions she made in order to protect Vikram from her toxic self. So dumb, so unproductive. Vikram really didn't work for me as a hero, and his stupid nickname Viky made me grimace every time it was used. While we kept being told in Ria's POV what a great guy he was, nothing in his POV sections actually showed us that he was. In fact, he seemed like a bitter, manipulative d-bag with far too many anger issues, and I'm honestly not sure why Ria should be so sorry he was the one that got away. There's also the fact that he does a complete 180 about halfway through the book, deciding to let bygones be bygones, dumping his current girlfriend and just wanting to make everything ok with Ria. In the last third of the book, he's suddenly super sensitive and supportive, nothing at all like the angry, verbally vicious jerk we meet at the start. It was a bit exhausting.

The bits of the story involving Ria's cousin's wedding and where the supporting cast took centre stage were really good and interesting. If this romance had been about Ria's cousin and his wife, I suspect I might have loved it. But no, it was all angsty and conflicty between two characters I didn't particularly like or believe in as a couple. The solution to Ria's not wanting to have children felt painfully obvious to me and again, once they actually speak honestly with one another, so much is resolved in one damn conversation. If they'd just talked things through, so much of the stupid melodrama would have been avoided. Now I'm sadly less excited about picking up Ms. Dev's first book, but since I own it, I guess I'll get round to it eventually. I'm going to be really interested in discussing this in March with the rest of the Cannonballers. I originally rated this 3.5 stars, then quickly decided it was probably more a 3 star book. Looking at some of the other romances I've rated 3 stars though, this is actually more a 2.5 star book. I'm very sorry, Ms. Dev, it may be just that the culture I grew up in is too different from that portrayed in your book, and that I therefore don't get it, but at the same time, I can't help but think that any cultural issues that needed a clear understanding should have been more carefully fleshed out for your readers.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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