- mvaligursky / Photoillustration by paul john higgins
If you learn anything from reading romance novels, it's that true love happens unexpectedly. For Sonali Dev, it happened about ten years ago, when she was sick in bed with a 102-degree fever and nothing to read. She asked her husband, Manoj Thatte, to pick something up for her when he took their kids to the library. He came back with a cheap paperback with the title stamped on the cover in gold foil. It was called Rosehaven, and it was by Catherine Coulter. It was the story of a spirited heiress in 13th-century England, the warrior she is forced to wed, and their estate full of adorable animals. Dev still has no idea why her husband chose this particular book; she suspects he'd forgotten his mission until he reached the checkout line and then grabbed the first thing he saw. She was annoyed. "Ten years you've been married to me," she told him, "and you think this is what I read?"
"This" was a romance novel. When Dev, now 44, was growing up in Mumbai, nobody she knew read books like that, and neither did she; even after she moved to America following her marriage, she continued to avoid them. Romance novels were not books for serious people. They had happy endings. They had too much sex and people talking about their feelings and ridiculously muscled men and beautiful women with purple eyes.
What she loved were the Bollywood films she grew up watching: tales of beautiful people kept apart by fate (or absurdly complicated circumstances), beset by emotions so powerful they can only express themselves through elaborate song-and-dance numbers, until true love triumphs in the end. She'd even tried her hand at writing a few scripts for her best friend, Rupali Mehta, a Bollywood producer, but they never made it out of the development phase.
And then came the fateful day her husband brought her Rosehaven. She was desperate for reading material, so she decided she'd give it a look anyway. Coulter is considered one of the masters of the genre, and Dev succumbed almost immediately. It kept her up all night.
It wasn't just the sex, or even that the book was a welcome distraction from her illness. Rosehaven gave her pleasure on a far deeper level. Here was a story where, at last, the woman was just as important as the man and didn't have to passively wait for him to choose her. Even more than that, it confirmed some of her most optimistic thoughts about the world: that love can bring out the best in people, can inspire them to be courageous and selfless, and can even create the kind of joy that makes people want to throw out their arms and sing.
"You're not going to believe this," she told her friend Mehta the next time they spoke, "but there's an entire genre of books that feel exactly like Bollywood movies!"
Dev decided she was going to start writing these kinds of books herself. Here was an opportunity to tell the same sort of stories she'd been trying to tell with her Bollywood scripts, but in much greater depth and detail. She finished the first draft of what would become her second published novel in the spring of 2010 and joined the Romance Writers of America to learn more about the craft and business of romance writing. She signed a contract with Kensington Publishing, one of the largest romance publishers, three years later. All in all, she says, she's been spectacularly fortunate.
Her first book (which was actually the second she finished), A Bollywood Affair, appeared in the fall of 2014 to almost universally glowing reviews; it ended up on several year-end lists of best books and was a finalist for a RITA, the RWA industry award, for Best First Novel. The Bollywood Bride came out last year to similar acclaim—and better sales. Dev's third novel, A Change of Heart, debuts next week, and has already received starred notices from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Booklist, three of the most important early reviewers. In the world of romance, she's a star, praised equally for her writing and her warm and bubbly personality, which comes through on social media and in blog posts. In person, she's petite and stylish, earnest and unassuming. She speaks in a soft voice with a slight Mumbai accent. You want good things to happen to her.
Dev's editor at Kensington, Martin Biro, says that he's the lucky one. He met Dev at the RWA's Chicago Spring Fling conference in 2013, where he was part of a panel of Kensington editors recruiting new authors. As he recalls it, during the Q-and-A period, Dev shyly told him she'd written a book set in Bollywood, but she wasn't sure if it was worth publishing. It was the word "Bollywood" that caught Biro's attention. "That sounds amazing," he remembers telling her. "Come talk to me."
- Adam Jason Cohen
- Sonali Dev
Romance, like many other popular art forms in America, has been reaching a crisis point in recent years. In a time when people are more conscious of race and diversity, the romance community has started to become uncomfortably aware of its whiteness. Across every subgenre, from Regency to paranormal to hard-core erotica, romance was disproportionately full of straight white people who celebrated Christmas.
At the annual RWA national conference in the summer of 2015, a panel of five authors—three black, one white, and one Indian—sat in front of a standing-room-only crowd to discuss the diversity issue. The problem, they agreed, was that the publishers didn't seem to think that white people would buy books by "diverse"—that is, nonwhite—authors, so they either didn't bother to promote them or segregated them under special African-American imprints (where, incidentally, e-books are priced higher than those published under "regular" imprints), so the books didn't sell well: a self-fulfilling prophecy! It wasn't enough that white authors were starting to include more nonwhite characters in their books. What would it be like, the authors wondered, if romance publishers took on more nonwhite authors and "allowed" them to write books where characters just lived their lives the way white characters did without thinking about race all the time? What if the publishers marketed those books the same way they marketed the "regular" titles? (Or as panelist Rebekah Weatherspoon put it, "I don't write under the genre 'black lady.' I write contemporary new adult.") What would happen then?
In response the RWA issued a statement that its board and staff were aware there was a discrimination problem in the industry and that they were working on ending it. Still, when it announced the 2015 RITA finalists this past spring, only five of the 90 books up for an award had a nonwhite protagonist. And this, as Dev noted in a blog post she wrote for NPR, was an improvement over previous years.
It seemed an especially egregious flaw for the romance genre. "We cultivate empathy," explains Sarah Wendell, cocreator of the popular romance website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books and coauthor of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. "When you read stories of other people, that cultivates empathy. You connect and care for other people. The point of being in the world is not about reading about white people only."
When Dev started sending query letters to agents and publishers back in 2010, though, the romance industry had barely started to recognize the problem. Several of the agents and editors who wrote back to her told her that romance readers weren't interested in Bollywood. One told her they weren't interested in a relationship between two Indian people, period, and suggested she make the hero of The Bollywood Bride a white dude instead.
Biro, however, saw things differently. As a gay man, he's aware he's an anomaly in the industry—the vast majority of romance editors are heterosexual white women—and is always happy to find a book that reflects his own experiences. (There's a small but growing market for gay romances, known in the trade as M/M, for man/man.) So why, he reasons, shouldn't people from other underrepresented groups like, say, Indians or Indian-Americans, feel the same way?
After Dev told him about The Bollywood Bride, Biro asked to see the manuscript. "You never know about a concept," he says. "If the prose isn't there, it's a letdown. But from the first pages, I knew I was very happy she'd asked the question."
In Dev's novels, the Indian-ness never feels like a gimmick. She writes about Indians and Indian-Americans because these are the people she knows best, and these are the stories she's been thinking about since she started writing Bollywood scripts. Like most people, she faces recurring conflicts in her life, but being Indian—or as she puts it, "Oh my gosh, I'm brown-skinned and everybody looks at me and sees a brown-skinned person whose family eats curry"—is not one of them. There's a place for those kinds of stories, she says, but not in the books she writes.
Many of the stories that interest her are still particular to India. The kernel of A Bollywood Affair, for instance, was a tale her parents had told her about a man who served as a fighter pilot with her father in the Indian Air Force. He had a wife with whom he was very much in love. One day his plane went down, and his family came from their village with another woman who they claimed was also his wife; they'd been married years ago, when they were children. Child marriage is officially illegal in India, but it's still practiced in outlying villages.
What would it be like, Dev wondered, to be that child bride? To spend your entire life confined in a marriage to a man who doesn't even acknowledge you as his wife? And then what if that child bride realized she wanted other things from life, like an education, and could use the privileges of being a wife but not a homemaker to get them?
And then a larger question, not particular to India at all: What does it mean to be a good wife—and mother and daughter—and how do you manage those expectations and still satisfy your own needs? This is one of the preoccupations at the center of her own life.
Dev comes from an outwardly nontraditional family. Her grandparents met in medical school when it was still a rare thing for an Indian woman to become a doctor. They came from different castes and defied their families in order to marry. It would have been a splendid scenario for a romance novel. "And then that marriage button is hit," Dev says, "and you're a wife, and all the rules change. From then on, he's the husband, you're the wife. Everyone's all, it's all good and dandy that you want to be a doctor or whatever, but your worth really comes from the taste of your lentil curry. All that is really was what she was most proud of, or what she was allowed to be most proud of, I think."
When it came time for her own marriage, Dev took a more pragmatic view. She was in her mid-20s and exhausted by a long, drawn-out, on-again, off-again relationship and waiting for the One to magically appear. If she opted for an arranged marriage, she reasoned, her family and friends, people who knew her well, would introduce her to a good man who actually wanted to get married. That was how she met Thatte. Unlike the other men she'd been introduced to, he laughed at her jokes and seemed delighted by her strong opinions. Per Indian custom, they married a week later, and she moved with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was working as a software developer and going to grad school part-time.
In America, Dev felt overwhelmed by the demands of marriage, family, and work, especially after she and Thatte had their two children, Mihir and Annika, now teenagers. She wanted to fulfill her duties as an Indian homemaker, providing beautiful meals, a clean house, and love and support for her children, but she also wanted to succeed in her career. After the family moved to Naperville, she worked as a technical writer for a series of corporations, including Parke-Davis (now Pfizer) and Autodesk, and felt perpetually exhausted.
When she started writing romance, though, she realized she'd managed to claim one piece of her identity entirely for herself. When she married, she'd unthinkingly taken her husband's last name; afterward, she thought about it a lot. She adopted the pen name Sonali Dev after she began trying to publish; it was a play off her maiden name, Mayadev. At first she took the name because no one could pronounce "Thatte," but eventually it took on a life of its own. "It's about creating this identity that belongs entirely to me," she says. "And I don't know why it's important, but it is."
In her novels, Dev's heroines find other ways of measuring their self-worth. Mili, the heroine of A Bollywood Affair, has learned to make a perfect lentil curry so her unknown husband will love her, once he bothers to claim her, but as she falls in love with Samir, the hero, she realizes that her true worth as a human being comes from something more than her skills as a stereotypical perfect Indian wife. Anyway, one of the many great things about Samir, aside from his beautifully defined shoulders and torso, is that he can make his own damned lentil curry, and it may be even better than hers. (At the very least, Samir's cooking renders Mili nearly orgasmic. "Every bite sent her into raptures, the pleasure of the flavors bursting on her tongue palpable in the tiny peaks of bliss flitting across her face.")
Take away the child marriage and the lentil curry, maybe replace it with an entail on an estate and a way with the embroidery needle, or a hostile corporate takeover and a really hot body, and you have the key element of any romance novel—or, for that matter, Bollywood rom-com: at last, someone sees you as you want to be seen and loves you for it.1
So why shouldn't any romance reader (or anyone in general) be able to identify with this? As Dev points out, white romance readers are somehow able to identify with vampires. They've learned how to pronounce the name "Guinevere." They're able to keep track of landaus and barouches and the many other varieties of carriages available in Regency England, and imagine what an elaborate Victorian gown might look like. After all of this, how are they not capable of learning a name like Vikram or Ravi, or remembering what carrot halwa is? And, to be completely fair, Dev helps her readers along with evocative descriptions of Indian food: "For a few moments they just ate [carrot halwa]. There could be nothing else when there was this, this crazy assault of sweet, buttery flavor on your tongue." In one scene in The Bollywood Bride, the heroine teaches her cousin's fiancee and, by extension, non-Indian readers how to wrap and move in a sari. (Dev has also included a glossary on her website. For everything else, there's Google.)
Some of Dev's Indian friends have criticized her for playing up the "Indian-ness" in her books. The title of A Bollywood Affair refers to Mili's American-born roommate's Big Fat Punjabi wedding. (The characters who hail from other parts of India look down on Punjabis for being loud and obnoxious and vulgar, much the same way Americans tend to regard people from New Jersey.) "Someone actually said to me once, 'Did you have to do that? Did you have to make them like that? Did you have to laugh at them like that? And is that really realistic?' And I asked, 'Do you not know these people? Have you not been to this wedding?' And she was like, 'Well, yeeeahh, but do we have to show that through the book?' " (The wedding in The Bollywood Bride is Marathi, and therefore much more tasteful.)
In some ways, Dev owes her career to the romance industry's recent preoccupation with multiculturalism. She's been able to write the books she wants and they've been published and embraced. "If I had waited another ten years without my book selling, would I have made compromises?" she asks rhetorically. "I don't know. I mean, I'm coming from a place of privilege, of someone who finally got somewhere."
Dev's friends in the romance-writing world think she got somewhere because, despite the industry's early resistance, her instinct to combine romance with Bollywood was a good one. "Sonali has a vision that no one else has," says Susan Elizabeth Phillips, another Chicago-area author who has had one of her books, Match Me If You Can, optioned by Bollywood. "She's very commercial. Readers are eager for a glimpse into other cultures." Sherry Thomas, a Chinese-born writer whose most recent romance novel, My Beautiful Enemy, was inspired by the wuxia martial arts novels of her childhood, first met Dev during a pitch-writing workshop at an RWA conference. Thomas had 300 pitches to critique and was also facing a book deadline, but Dev's pitch stood out. "The premise was so unusual," she says. "I was really looking forward to reading it. You can tell when things are going to be good."
Kensington has also done her the courtesy of publishing her books with care and attention. Instead of printing them as standard mass-market paperbacks with a cover illustration of a man's bare chest or a couple clinching so hard their clothes are falling off, the publisher decided on larger, more expensive trade paperbacks with colorful images of saris, bangles, and henna. Dev herself is of two minds about this. On one hand, it seems stereotypical for a book about Indians and Indian-Americans to have saris, bangles, and henna on the cover. On the other, since all these things do appear in her books, they're true to the spirit of the story. And she also realizes that the covers appeal to people who would be embarrassed to be caught in public reading something that looked too obviously like a romance. "I wouldn't mind man chest, though," she says a little wistfully.
According to Nielsen's Romance Book Buyer Report, most romance readers choose their books based on recommendations from their friends or favorite reviewers. So before the release of A Bollywood Affair, the publisher sent out advance copies not just to regular romance reviewers and other authors, but also to bloggers and Goodreads users, who were charmed first by the Bollywood concept and then by Dev's writing and began to talk it up on Twitter. By the time it was finally published, the chatter had grown to full-fledged buzz. "Man," began one of the few negative reviews, on the website Love in the Margins. "I'm going to be kicking a puppy here."
A Bollywood Affair sold well. Dev had suggested publishing The Bollywood Bride second because of its darker subject matter: Ria, the heroine, is a Bollywood star who returns home to Naperville for a wedding and has to confront Vikram, her childhood best friend turned true love, ten years after they were torn apart by the tragic effects of her mother's mental illness. It sold even better. Now A Change of Heart, the darkest book yet, is poised to broaden Dev's readership beyond romance into mainstream fiction. "It's a romance at its core," Biro says, "but it's also rooted in the real world and has a page-turning suspense element. From the get-go there's a lot of crossover. It's not pigeonholed as a romance. It has broader appeal. It's a window into another culture."
Dev is kind of tired of talking about diversity now. For her, A Change of Heart was less about creating a window into another culture—though there is an excursion into the fresh territory of the Mumbai criminal underworld—than a harrowing exploration of trauma and grief. In a way, it's a continuation of her preoccupation with marriage and family. She'd originally intended to tell the story of Ria's cousin Nikhil and his wife, Jen, the two Doctors Without Borders medics who married in The Bollywood Bride. Maybe, subconsciously, she'd realized that she'd already given them their "happily ever after" and there was nowhere to go but down, but as she began to write about their adventures in the slums of Mumbai, the story began to take on a life of its own. So Jen's investigation into an organ-stealing ring ended with a pair of gangsters raping and murdering her in an alley, right in front of Nikhil. When the novel actually begins, it's two years later, and Nikhil, in his grief, has abandoned Mumbai and his ideals and has gone to work as a doctor on a cruise ship and drinks himself numb and sick every night. Jess, the mysterious woman he encounters aboard the ship who claims to have received Jen's heart in a transplant, has been through even worse: human traffickers brought her from her native Nepal to India, where her troubles really began.
"I didn't go shopping for a dark topic," Dev says. "But you question, right? You spend your whole life trying to make this wonderful life in terms of being married and having kids, and you put all of your love and everything into this. People lose people all the time. Loss happens all the time. What lies after that?"
Because A Change of Heart is a romance novel, it's a foregone conclusion that somehow Nikhil and Jess will recognize the best parts of each other and heal together and then live happily ever after. But that doesn't mean they don't suffer first. ("Everyone has demons to fight," says Dev's friend Kristan Higgins, who writes cheerful small-town romances set in the northeast. "That's an important part of modern romance novels. It's not just the nurse and the doctor falling in love.")
They suffer a lot. They suffer so much that Dev began to have trouble disconnecting from them and the book and returning to her regular life. Normally she works in short, intense bursts; she tells her children to pretend she's away on a business trip. During the writing of A Change of Heart, though, she felt herself unable to slip back into her regular identity as wife, mother, friend, and worker. She'd never been in such a dark place.
- Adam Jason Cohen
But Dev, like almost all romance readers and writers, is an optimist. One of her favorite parts about reading romance novels is how the characters, particularly the women, have a sense of agency, and one of the most interesting parts about writing romance novels is exploring that sense of agency: How do you choose to navigate a world where your whole sense of self-worth is based on your looks and feminine accomplishments, or where circumstances force you into an elaborate lie to protect your family, or where you've seen the love of your life tortured and killed? Do you choose to find a way out, or do you succumb? In a lot of contemporary fiction, the characters succumb; part of the fascination is seeing how far they'll go. Dev, however, doesn't find this fascinating. "These are not characters I want to follow," she says. "I think that this whole snobbery around anybody hoping . . . " Her voice trails off. "It's not necessarily cheesy. But we're so cynical, it is cheesy."
For her, one of the most satisfying parts of a book is when characters finally embrace their own better natures: "He could do nothing for Jen," Nikhil realizes. "But Jess, her? He could make the life she had survived count, help her take it back. Suddenly, he needed to do that more than anything else."
The emphasis on hope, Dev believes, is why many readers still tend to look down on romance writing, even though there are romances, like her own, that are just as well written and structured as books that are considered literary fiction. And it's true there are few things cheesier than an unearned happy ending, except for maybe video game-style annihilation. But hey, at least with that, nobody is talking about their feelings. "I think [romance will get more respect] when people who read romance are in charge of the world," author Sherry Thomas says. "People stopped making fun of fantasy and science fiction when the fantasy and science fiction fans took over. Women need to take charge of the world."
Dev isn't sure what sort of reception Change of Heart will receive from readers. She feels she managed to pull Jess and Nikhil through the darkness into a better place, though she's not sure whether readers will agree. But Dev's already moved on and is at work on revisions to her fourth book. It's a sequel of sorts to Change of Heart and concerns a young woman in Mumbai who spent 12 years living in isolation while she waited for a heart transplant. Now that she's free, she's determined to seize as much of life as possible, while the hero, who was a servant in her house and her only friend as a child and who has now grown up to be a cop, tries to make sure she doesn't get into too much trouble. In tone, it's more of a romantic comedy, like A Bollywood Affair. "I think all the darkness got squeezed out of my system," Dev says. "At least for a while."
She's not entirely comfortable with her role as the One and Only Indian-American Romance Novelist; for one thing, she's not. Alisha Rai and Suleikha Snyder write about Indian characters too, and Snyder has also written a series set in Bollywood. But if more people will read her books and be inspired to buy more romances by south Asian writers, she considers that a happy ending. And she firmly believes in happily ever afters.
"I don't understand when people say to me, 'Oh, life's not like that,' " Dev says. "It kind of is! Or it should be. Everything you're doing in the hope that something good's going to happen. I mean, otherwise what are you living for, right?" v
A Change of Heart by Sonali Dev (Kensington). Dev appears with Kate Meader for "Reading, Signing, Samosas and Mimosas!"Thu 9/29, 7 PM, Anderson's Bookshop, 123 W. Jefferson Ave, Naperville, 630-355-2665, andersonsbookshop.com, Free