Sunday, February 13, 2011

the serrador express* rides again

Hi friends. I did some reading this week, much to my own surprise. They comprised three Mills and Boon novels, one of which is the first written by an Indian novelist. The other two are set in Russia and a small town in Wyoming, USA respectively.

I know. There is really no polite reason for women like me to read novels we like to mock. Everyone knows romance novels are not written for radical feminazis like myself who want to smash heteronormative ideas of male-female relationships / are not written for secret tools of the patriarchy like myself who will take a Pulitzer-Prize-winning work of history about dead white men** far more seriously than I would a genre romance / are not written for strong, confident women with rich fulfilling inner personal and professional lives like myself / are not written for shallow emotionally unavailable young girls who have no romance in their lives like myself.

But I will advance my non-professional, non-serious opinion nonetheless, because I am not a hater - at least not today morning - and as I intend no malice, I have no problem with being gratuitous.

The Love Asana, by Milan Vohra

Milan Vohra is the first Indian author to write a M&B novel. After I interviewed her, I heard from a couple of people who said that they remembered seeing at least one Indian name on a M&B cover before. Maybe M&B India were undertaking a devilish and disingenuous publicity stunt. But I think what they meant is that Vohra is the first Indian author to write a M&B novel about Indian characters in an Indian city.

...I know, right? Apprehension. Maybe this is how Italians and Greeks feel all the time when they see their countries as the backdrop to trashy English-language romance novels. Or maybe not. Usually, stuff like The Greek Billionaire's Secret Virgin Bride Who Wanted To Be A Nun But Ended Up Singing In A Nightclub And Exploited By Her Wicked Stepbrother For Money But Has Never Given In To Temptation Before Except With A Greek Billionaire ie YOU and The Italian Mafia Boss' Lovechild from His Dead Sister's Innocent Best Friend Who Is Beautiful But Doesn't Know It And Has Very Lofty Morals About Stuff Like Murder But Somehow She Just Melts In Your Arms Even Though You Are In A Dodgy And Offensively Stereotypical Job Because No One Has Touched The Core Of Her Flower-Like Being Except For An Italian Mafia Boss ie YOU is just about interchangeable non-Italian, non-Greek English-speaking girls being swept away by lazy Mediterranean stereotypes, and written by non-Italian, non-Greek English speaking authors. So most Italians and Greeks will probably not read these books and go away and read Homer and Dante instead. Or trashy Italian and Greek romance novels about mysterious English gentlemen with mansions on the Yorkshire moors in which they keep their first wives chained away up in the attic. Wait. What did I just do there?

Anyway. The Love Asana. The Love Asana is set in New Delhi. It is about the Greek Indian billionaire Vivan Parasher, who has returned home having built some sort of design empire in the US. The important thing is that he is hot. He is tall and built like a god (presumably a Greek one. Or an Italian one, like Paolo Maldini.) and has spiky dark hair and another sexy arrow of hair that runs down to the line of the towel he wraps around himself after a bath. And he is eyeball-meltingly successful, like I said, and his design empire company is now coming out with a line of yoga clothing, that they will retail around the world for fun and profit.

Pari Chand is a yoga instructor. SURPRAIZ, LADIES.

Pari's elder brother, Deepak, owns an advertising agency which really badly wants Vivan's company account to revive its failing fortunes. Vivan also wants to give this account to Deepak. Why? Because Vivan once had a sister, Sonia, who had a love affair with Deepak. Who then dumped Sonia. Who then died heartbroken. While Vivan was away building his design empire. So Vivan wants revenge.

I know what you are asking yourselves. If you were a multibillionaire with a dead sister who wanted to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend wouldn't you, like, put a horse's head in his bed or something? Or is that only okay if you are an Italian mafia boss who is capable of touching an innocent girl's flower-like core? Do you think Don Corleone ever did that? At any rate, why would you give this creeper ex your company's lucrative advertising account? Maybe you inhaled something very bad in America and now you have gaps in your cognitive processes?

Duh, no. Naturally, it's a Trojan horse. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Especially Greek billionaires. And especially if you have a young sister upon whom he can extend his revenge by -- marrying her halfway through the book! And then taking her to his luxurious bungalow in Lutyens' Delhi, entering into mutually thrilling carnal knowledge with, falling in love with and having a child with, in that socially desirable order. That burned you, didn't it? I mean, to be on the safe side you better back off Greeks altogether. And Indians. Especially Indian billionaires like Vivan Parasher.

I actually really liked this book, in spite of it causing me to renew my commitment to admiring Gandhian austerity in men. Vohra has a confident, breezy authorial voice and not even the M&B rulebook can totally dampen it. It's a meatier chick lit novel trying to fit into the narrow space afforded it by the M&B format, and you know what? By those standards, it worked. I didn't really care about the dude, but who reads M&Bs for the dudes anyway? I read on wanting to know what was going to happen to Pari.

And I really liked that Vohra paid as much attention to supporting female characters as possible - a stepmother with whom Pari can build a healthy relationship, friends and family who talk and act like interesting, real women - and tried to give Pari herself some real problems other than getting married to an Indian billionaire she doesn't want.

Bottomline: if Vohra wrote another novel, I would read it. The percentage of bad-to-good in fluffy Indian novels is about the same as it is in English publishing everywhere, I think, but Vohra flies upwards, like the sparks in that line in the Bible. She's closer to Anuja Chauhan (who is an author you MUST read if you like fluffy novels and Indian novels and frivolity in general) than to Chetan Bhagat (who is an author you must read only if you plan to subsequently go to America and inhale something very bad there that will leave gaps in your cognitive processes). We need that.

Prince Voronov's Virgin, by Lynn Raye Harris

As I said earlier and tweeted about fifty-three times, I was reading about Walter Benjamin's experience of urban alienation and the collapse of privacy in revolution-era Moscow in Molotov's Magic Lantern, gripped and enchanted by the way the author Rachel Polonsky teased histories out from books and the long-dead men who collected them, of the architecture of Moscow's streets and the cold mazes of the Gulag. Tears sprang to my eyes in the middle of a crowded train, as I read:

Shalamov, who learned in the gulag that a graphite pencile was 'a greater miracle than a diamond,' associated ink with the evil powers of the state. 'What kind of ink is used to sign death sentences? No death sentence has ever been signed simply in pencil.'

It was from this delicate examination of Russian history that I dove straight into Prince Voronov's Virgin, much like you swan-dive into the deep end of a swimming pool. Which is dry.

It was irresistible. There was a mysterious Prince Voronov in it. I am a fiercely republican person, but after you have just read a few elegantly-turned accounts of Stalin's henchmen betraying each other to torture and firing squads you feel a sort of reactionary warmth for aristocracy creeping into your extremities, like one of the later stages of frostbite. So for the sake of perestroika I was quite prepared to like Prince Voronov.

Unglamorous (obviously) American secretary Paige Barnes is wandering alone about the Red Square at night. Suddenly, hooligans appear (obviously). Paige runs from them, and bumps into a mysterious and powerful and handsome man who realises that she needs help. He saves her from the hooligans! He does this by holding her up against a shop window that borders the square and pretending to have sex with her. Paige finds this sexy and terrifying but mostly sexy. So she goes back to his apartment with him - but not to have proper sex that does not involve shop windows. She goes so that the mysterious Alexei can tell her how gorgeous she is and how much she deserves to be loved and so that he can, unbeknowst to her, steal away vital company information from her. Because he hates her American boss. Because her boss is the son of the man who once condemned Alexei's younger sister to death by refusing money for her cancer treatment. Obviously.

No, Alexei does not have a fabric design empire in America.

Anyway stuff happens and blah blah U R TEH PRINCE VORONOV :O :O :O and blah blah palace with beautiful paintings and a troika ride in the winter and GUYS WE SHOULD SAVE MONEY AND GO TO RUSSIA FOR THE 2018 WORLD CUP and then they have amazing beautiful moving passionate sex because Paige deserves to be loved and Alexei is a sleek, virile animal with a sexy arrow of dark hair that disappears into his perfectly tailored trousers and Paige is a virgin who did not know that she was a virgin: obviously the most romantic thing to happen to a girl and a boy.

Then they go to sleep, and there is a problem with the condom and after Alexei has crushed Paige's company to powder (obviously Russian billionaires are much better clued in to this whole revenge thing than Indian ones. Maybe Odysseus was secretly a Russian.) everything is all blah blah sadness blah blah new job blah blah never want to see him again blah blah I have been having jetlag for six weeks now I should really stop throwing up in the mornings and blah blah my sassy black friend makes me get a pregnancy test which is OH NO! BUT I LOVE THIS BABY ANYWAY BECAUSE I'M A GIRL AND THAT'S WHAT GIRLS DO! positive.

So obviously, because preserving the royal line is all-important to Alexei, he marries Paige as soon as he gets wind of goings-on. He spirits her back to his piazza outside Moscow, showering her with jewels and deportment lessons and freezing politeness because he has a lot of feelings. I think all of Leo Tolstoy's novels would have been A MILLION TIMES BETTER if men had had condoms in those days and they managed to impregnate ladies in spite of them.

The notion that billionaires could crush poor single mothers in custody battles or open a Wikipedia page on how royal bloodlines in European history really worked is far too gauche to apply here.

So Paige becomes Princess Voronova! And then runs off with Marat Safin the minute she manages to sell the family diamonds and get some money in a Swiss bank account.

Well, not really. But I suppose Marat Safin is a busy man. So Paige and Alexei fall in love with each other instead, and each of them has a big empty space in their lives that they teach the other to fill, and it's pretty much exactly the opposite of a George Eliot novel, which is how novels by lady novelists should really should be.

Bottomline: You should read it. It has a revenge subplot and a secret baby. If you don't like revenge subplots and secret babies you should read it for Hollywood!Russia. If you don't like Hollywood!Russia then you should read it for Marat Safin. He's not in it but you can mentally Photoshop him into it, like all those Sarah Palin macros in which Putin rears his head.

The Sheriff's Secret Wife, by Christyne Butler

I was very sure this was going to contain the most net WTF-ery of all three, because it is called The Sheriff's Secret Wife, and secret wives are even less George-Eliot-like than secret babies. It starts out in Las Vegas. It has drunken shenanigans. If you took out the sheriff it could be an episode from Friends in its declining years.

But I was wrong. This in spite of the fact that the book's protagonist is called Racy. Racy is from Destiny, Wyoming, not Muvattupuzha, Kerala. She is in Las Vegas for a bartending competition, as she is a bartender, and a very good one. She wins the competition and subsequently quite a lot of poker bets and gets amnesia-inducingly drunk and wakes up the morning after wearing nothing but a wedding ring and a naked virile animal with a sexy arrow of dark hair down his stomach.

But he is not a tall dark stranger. He is Gage Steele, sheriff of Destiny, Wyoming!

Why was he in Las Vegas when he should have been back home being sheriff? IDK. Why did he agree to marry her while drunk? IDK. Why is he such a hot piece of ass? IDK but I am guessing that with a name like 'Gage,' you need some sort of advantage in life.

They get divorced. But there is something wrong with the divorce papers so they aren't really divorced. They have to find a way to be properly divorced, while ensuring that no one in Destiny knows about the fact that they are getting divorced because they were married in the first place.

Now I don't personally know a lot of divorced people but from everything I have heard, if you are looking for smouldering romance and soul-enthralling passion the odds that you will experience it with the same person from whom you are attempting to disentangle yourself through a bureaucratic procedure are very long.

But that's what literature is for. So Racy and Gage set out to find another lawyer. In the meanwhile, Gage has to keep the town safe, because he's the sheriff and that's what he wears cowboy boots and a Stetson for. Racy has to think about her long-term plan to buy over the bar she works, deal with her two elder brothers who have just been released from prison, and a friend's upcoming wedding. They can't bake cakes with rainbow sprinkles just because they have a lot of feelings for each other. you see it's not really ridiculous enough.

It's really not! See, I got the strange feeling that the author actually applied a bit of long-term thought to what would happen to her characters and her location. It's a town full of heterosexual neurotypical attractive white people, which I imagine is very Hollywood!Rural USA, but it's a long way away from setting a novel in a wintry palace in Russia. And Racy has stuff going on in her life. She's not looking for male validation. She's not a pawn in a revenge plot. She's just a sort of heroine who wants to do stuff that lots of ambitious, conservative women want to do, like finish college and own a bar and be respected and respectable. She likes her place of work and she's made serious mistakes in her life - not of the 'I care too much about other people!' variety, but the 'I fucked up and now I have two bad marriages in my past' sort. And most endearingly, she is interested in people besides herself and her virile sexy arrow-of-stomach-hair secret cowboy husband. I don't even know if that can be honestly said of many characters even in non-cowgirl fiction. Because the author just sort of assumes that her female protagonist is in most ways equal to her male protagonist, she doesn't even get to make a big deal out of it. They just fall out and get along and fall out and get along until happily-ever-after comes by, by which time it is actually possible to think of them as two human beings who might have a mutually assured future.

One of the book's problems is that it is obviously written as part of an internal M&B series, so there are several parallel romance sub-plots that are either unresolved or overdetermined. Apart from that also, of course, you're totally right to guess that there is plenty of melodrama and rather a ton of overfamiliar plot points. But let me be frank - these are practically the only reasons I read books.

Bottomline: Worked. But as someone whose only previous cultural exposure to sheriffs is a song called I Shot The Sheriff, I know I have very high credulity when it comes to cowboy romance and cowboy adventure and cowgirl ladies. Maybe this is why I enjoyed it? Or is it because reading three M&B in a day can condition the mind into acceptance very successfully?

* - to know more about the title of this post, see here.

** - simulreading Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance.

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