July's TBR Challenge Theme was RITA books. Just last Saturday I was privileged to be in the audience for the RITA awards, on the closing night of the RWA conference in New York City. Sonali Dev was there looking gorgeous in gold sari but sadly she didn't win for best first book, although her book was the only one in the category that I read.
The Bollywood Affair had been sitting in my TBR since it came out last fall. It had received enthusiastic recommendations from both Jane and Sarah on the DBSA podcast (a very rare thing) and it gorgeous cover was all over my newsfeed at the time. But the hype and fear of unrealistic expectations kept dropping it further down my TBR pile. I was scared to read it and not like it, or of not loving it enthusiastically enough.
I am glad that I waited to read it, so I could judge for itself not the hype.
It was a fun book, very pleasant with a surprising amount of emotional depth. The story opens with a mass wedding ceremony in a small village in India. Mili at four years old is crying desperately through the ceremony as her 12-year old groom wanders away bored. Twenty years later Mili still considers herself married, even though she doesn't remember the ceremony and has not seen her groom since then. She has been able to use the privileges of being a considered a married woman to secure for herself an education and a future outside her family's old-fashioned village but still waits impatiently for her groom's return.
Virat Rathod has no intention of ever returning for Mili. Virat believed the wedding annulled till threatening letters from lawyers claiming to represent Mili start arriving. He fears for the validity of his second marriage and for the security of his pregnant wife Rima's future. Virat asks his younger brother Samir to track down Mili and make her understand that they have no marriage.
Sam Rathod, a famous Bollywood writer and director embroiled in tabloid scandal and experiencing serious writer's block, jumps at the chance to leave his own troubles behind and be of use to the older brother he adores. He tracks Mili down to Michigan where she is studying, and soon becomes over-involved in her life, while hiding his true identity and his reason for looking her up.
There were several things about Mili that didn't work for me (she is romance-novel clumsy, unaware of her own beauty, etc) but at her core she is a young woman who turned an awful situation (child marriage and abandonment) into opportunities. Her resiliency, loyalty and faithfulness were truly something to admire. Her internal conflict over her feeling for Sam and her conviction about the trueness of her first marriage was fantastic. She misjudges her feelings for Sam and the safety of her own heart.
Sam also had many romance hero elements that didn't work for me but I was fascinated by Sam, and Lata Rathod's backstory and relationship. I could have read a whole book about Lata, Sam's mother, who seemed like a truly remarkable, generous and courageous woman who faced much sadder and uglier choices than Mili ever did as a result of her own childhood marriage.
The depth of betrayal Mili feels at Sam's hand was breathtaking and even though the resolution was mad-cap in tone, it felt genuine to who Mili and Sam were and I cried happy tears for both of them.
I am looking forward to reading Sonali Dev's next book, The Bollywood Bride.