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I think we can all agree that no one should be forced into marriage, and that children in particular should not be forced to wed, or really probably be allowed to get married at all. In the real world, child marriage can be dangerous and exploitive and probably never leads to a handsome and wealthy director falling in love with a plucky but impoverished student. In the romance novel world, however, things tend to be a little different. Fictional child marriage can lead to a jaunty tale of mistaken identity and love overcoming mistakes and obstacles. Plus, it’s imaginary and no real people get hurt. So, to review: while real world child marriage is terrible; romance novel child marriage is an excellent plot hook. Now that we’re clear on that, let’s proceed.

Type: Contemporary Romance

The couple: Malvika “Mili” Rathod, is devoted to her grandmother, her schoolwork, and the husband she hasn’t seen since shortly after they married as children. She believes in tradition, but is also determined enough to go halfway around the world to pursue her education. She’s incredibly kind and very poor. All of those traits are very confusing to Samir Rathod. It says more about Samir than Mili that he’s never met anyone like her. Although Samir is a loyal brother and son, he’s also a wealthy and famous Bollywood director, and kind of a manipulative asshole (at the beginning of the book, anyway). Don’t forget this is a romance novel, where love makes everyone a better person.

Tropes: Mistaken identity; complicated family relationships; graphic discussion of delicious Indian food. That last one isn’t really a trope, but it did have me eating a lot of Indian take-out while reading this book.  

The story: Twenty years ago in India, four-year-old Mili was married in a mass wedding ceremony to a twelve-year-old named Virat Rathod. Shortly after, Virat’s mother took him and his brother Samir far away from their terrible grandfather, and Virat’s (too) young wife never saw him again. Years later, upon reaching an appropriate age, Virat fell in love and, assuming that any marriage involving a four-year-old probably wasn’t valid, married an adult woman. Alas, he was eventually confronted with a letter indicating that his first marriage might not be technically dissolved, and at the beginning of A Bollywood Affair, Virat dispatches his devoted brother Samir to procure a speedy annulment. Apparently brothers do this for each other?

At the same time, Mili has just moved from Jaipur to Michigan to study sociology. Samir finds her, finds that things are not exactly what they seem, and doesn’t quite get around to telling her who he is or why he’s there (don’t judge, we’ve all lied to our in-laws). Samir gets increasingly tangled into Mili’s life, they have a surprising number of adventures given that it’s Michigan, and the web of deceit grows as quickly as their love for one another. And that, as you can imagine, eventually leads to some problems.

How’s the sex? Scandalous. Do the math, people: Mili is Samir’s sister-in-law. Plus, she doesn’t know during the one sex scene that he’s her husband’s brother AND since she hasn’t seen her husband in decades, it’s her first time. But the outrageousness continues: they get it on in the woods UP AGAINST A TREE. A woman losing her virginity with tree bark jammed into her back is, along with the child marriage situation, something you shouldn’t think too hard about in this story.

Is this book for you? Books with happy endings and outdoor sex scenes don’t usually get nearly the acclaim that A Bollywood Affair has seen since being published last year. Seriously – even The Smithsonian is on board, and for good reason. In her debut novel, author Sonali Dev captures her readers’ attention with an engaging story and multifaceted characters. The previously discussed descriptions of Indian food also don’t hurt its appeal.

A Bollywood Affair has more depth in its storytelling than the wacky premise would suggest. Information – and a lack of it – are central. The plot is driven by who knows what, who is wrong about what they think they know, and who is lying to who and why. Dev uses misconceptions and deceit in her story to build the central relationship like a Jenga tower. Suspense builds as the blocks get moved, the holes make the tower get more and more untenable, and the reader is gripped by the knowledge that, just like every Jenga game that has ever been played, you’re moving closer and closer to an inevitable collapse. But don’t worry: you’re reading a romance novel review column, so the odds that everything can be put back together again are awfully good.

It’s also important to note that the fact that the characters in A Bollywood Affair are Indian – as is Dev herself – comes up a lot in discussions about the book. Romantic fiction is just one more realm in publishing that desperately needs more diversity among its characters and authors, and Dev fully embraces the differences in her novel. The fact the culture is heavily represented adds dimension and helps the book to stand out from so many other cookie cutter love stories. Dev also doesn’t bother explaining every single term or tradition, assuming that romance readers are smart enough to use context clues or Google. And contrary to some of the book snobbery that exists, we certainly are.

Conclusion: A Bollywood Affair is an engaging story that manages to balance the madcap moments with the moving ones. It’s universally praised because it’s genuinely good, and Dev, whose second book comes out this month, has set quite a high bar for herself. Grab yourself some samosas, settle in, and get ready to have a great time with a slightly different kind of story. The Smithsonian and I would not steer you wrong.

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