The Bollywood Bride gave me a lot to think about. Sonali Dev followed up her romantic comedy, The Bollywood Affair, with a very different kind of romance. Although both novels are set in boisterous Indian-American household, frantically hosting grand weddings, filled with doting Aunties, the stories couldn't be more different in tone. While Dev once again celebrates the sounds, sights and taste of Indian-American culture while capturing the tensions of bi-national immigrant life, but she goes deeper, tackling the stigma and isolation mental illness within the context of modern Indian society.
Ria Parkar is the Ice Princess, a cool, untouchable heroine on the Bollywood screens. Her icy demeanor off screen hides her painful shyness and pain. Ten years ago she sold her sell for a chance at Bollywood stardom, leaving her old name and loves in the past in desperate attempt to keep the one promise she could bear to break. The rigors of staying star-shaped, the pressures of production and crushing loneliness make it harder and harder to keep up the smiling facade from cracking. When her beloved cousin Nikhil asks her to come home for his wedding, she can't refuse his request even though she desperately wants to. Distracted and preoccupied she makes an impulsive decision that gives a blackmailing paparazzo the shot of a lifetime. A brief vacation to a family wedding in Chicago is just the respite she needs, even if it means risking seeing the first love she betrayed once again.
In Ria, Dev creates a complicated character, guilt-ridden, fearful and fiercely independent. As a child she felt the sting of her mother and grandmother's mental illness, physically and emotionally. Her father sends her away to school, and later to his sister's home in Chicago out of desire to protect her. To Ria, a child who does not understand what is happening with her mother or why she was sent away, it feels like being punished and banished. As adult, she fears that she will become dangerously ill herself one day. She fears becoming a burden those she loves, and she can't understand the choices her parents made. She hides all this confusion, and vulnerability behind her perfect looks and a practiced smile. She feels dirty and soiled after being coerced into a sexual relationship with her first co-star. She harshly judges herself, though it is clear to the reader that she was a victim, sexually exploited. The paralyzing anxiety, panic attacks and self-loathing depressive thoughts that haunt Ria are easier to hide than her mother's schizophrenia but not less needing of care and support. These jagged edges make her a vastly different character than wide-eyed Mili from The Bollywood Affair.
Vikram Jathar, is no less complicated even though he is not the central focus of the story. Vikram was once Ria's first-ever friend, then her best-friend and eventually her first love before Ria left him without explanation. He has spent the last ten years of his life trying to get over her. His reaction to seeing her again is far from perfect, although his anger, and confusion are understandable. His initial selfish prideful choices in reaction to his hurt expose him to be darker than the perfect first love Ria holds in her memory.
A happily-ever-after for Ria involves much more than being reunited with her first love. Ria and Vikram have to peel back layers of pain, before she can let herself be loved and before he can make the choice to love. While Vikram is stead-fast in insisting that she is worth loving, he has his own growing up to do in order to do it.
In Bollywood Bride, love does not magically heal hurts, protect from horrible things from happening at some future date. Love is choice not to fear and take chance on happiness together, to chose to partner through what could the darkest of days.
While I liked The Bollywood Affair, it didn't sink it hooks in me like the Bollywood Bride which I read in one sitting, unable to stop once I started reading and I am looking forward to reading whatever Ms. Dev writes next.
I received a ARC of The Bollywood Bride a gazillion years ago from its publishers Kensington Books
via NetGalley. The novel has been available at all the usual retailers since Sep. 29, 2015