Perhaps complaining about clichés in romance novels is like whining that fantasy novels have too many wizards or that spy thrillers obsess over fancy cars. Being a fan of a specific genre, by definition, requires us to embrace the staples and tropes that make a novel a genre piece.
It can be fun to see old genre favorites pop up and mix among new flavors: I get a kick out of seeing with what Mediterranean-adjacent ethnicity the latest Harlequin Presents imbues its wealthy, playboy-with-a-heart-of-gold love interest. Will it be Italian (The Italian’s Marriage Bargain)? Spanish (The Spanish Duke’s Virgin Bride)? Maybe Greek (The Greek Tycoon’s Pregnant Wife)? Or Arab (The Sheikh’s Christmas Conquest) for a twist? (These are actual, published titles, and I have read every single one of them. There are so many in the Greek, Sheikh and Italian titles that they have their own sub-genres.) If you have a drinking game or Bingo card, you’re pretty much guaranteed a good time.
That said, the use of some tropes—when regurgitated wholesale onto the page without analysis or consideration—are warning signs of lazy writing or the author’s lazy intellect. This feels especially alarming when these are repetitions of other authors’ gross or uncomfortable tropes that didn’t work the first time.
A Bollywood Affair is Sonali Dev’s debut romance novel: a book that generated a lot of buzz and high praise from both Smart Bitches Trashy Books.com and Pop Culture Happy Hour.com. It’s easy to see why: Romance, in general, is a white-washed genre. A Bollywood Affair gives us Indian and Indian-American characters, with plenty of Indian cultural touchstones (food, weddings, film, and so on).
The premise alone is new and engaging: Mili Rathod was married at age four to a local village boy before he and his family fled their abusive circumstances. Years later, she still believes herself to be married. She waits patiently for her husband to claim her. Her husband—having had no contact with Mili in nearly twenty years—thinks he’s single until he attempts to marry his girlfriend. His brother, Samir, travels to the American college Mili attends in hopes of obtaining a divorce for his brother.
It’s a promising beginning: Mili is independent and focused (she studies abroad in Michigan with very little family or financial support) yet her characterization still feels true to her origins (she studies abroad partly because she believes a smart, Westernized wife will please her husband). Samir is a cocky womanizer but is loving and loyal toward his mother and brother. The familiar plot has enough variation that I didn’t feel as if I’d read it a thousand times. There’s even a case of mistaken identity (twice!). There’s a wedding, a journey, and a misunderstanding. It was enough to keep me engaged and turning the pages.
Yet there were multiple times when I threw down the book in disgust.
There weren’t many cookie-cutter ridiculous rom-com scenarios (though there was a visit to a cancer patient’s bedside to clean out the back-story skeletons in the closet.) There was no purple prose. The sex scenes were enjoyable and felt (mostly) earned. I even forgave the hand-waving way the leads are initially brought together and then eventually make up: these are old genre favorites.
What got me is that many of the characters thoughts and actions in A Bollywood Affair are not old genre favorites: they’re new ones that normalize misogyny and violence against women. What’s worse is that they’re popping up in more and more contemporary romances and seem to be taking hold as the new normal in the minds of authors and their readers.
These can best be categorized as Twilight/50 Shades of Gray tropes. They include (but are not limited to):
- The heroine needing protection from her own clumsiness
- The hero offering up his childhood abuse as justification for his current asshole behavior
- The hero’s dishonesty
- The hero sleep-watching/stalking the heroine as a sign of his love
- The hero’s fixation on the heroine’s weight
- You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful (That What Makes You Beautiful)
- The hero’s excessive and controlling jealousy of any other age-appropriate males
- The heroine is so cute when she’s angry
- Special snowflake love changes/redeems a person
- And last (hand to God) the naming of the hero’s genitals
At least in 50 Shades Christian only requested that Ana get on a first-name basis with his penis. In A Bollywood Affair, our hero names his. “Little Sam” appears so frequently that it could be a character in its own right. Our hero treats his penis as an existential object of temptation: “Little Sam was at work again. And as usual, that meant nothing but trouble for Samir.”
Mili hurts her wrist and sprains her ankle by riding a bike into a tree. Her injuries are so severe, in fact, that they require her to be on crutches for four weeks. She is completely at Samir’s mercy, having no one else to care for her. Why do we infantilize our romance heroines? Why must they be protected from their clumsiness and other men and guided in the “right” direction? It’s a key plot point when Samir walks in on her changing clothes. He becomes so angry at her “ungratefulness” that he leaves her standing in the middle of the room sans crutches until she faints from her narcolepsy-inducing medication.
This is gross. I mean really, truly gross. How can I enjoy the passages dedicated to how unfairly attractive he is when he first violates the heroine’s privacy (and admits in a later passage that yeah, he totally used the opportunity to admire her body), gets angry when she calls him on it, and abandons her after insisting that only he take care of her for a week?
His realization of his mistake and his rush back to help her is supposed to show us that she’s changing his selfish ways with her attractive guilelessness. Unlike all of the other women Samir knows, Mili is special. She’s not dramatic. She’s not a gold-digger. He usually prefers women “with experience” but finds himself turned on by her virginity.
Mili’s innocence, however, is a particularly strained characterization. Dev frequently reminds the reader that Mili has remained true to the husband she married at age four and has never even considered another man. She’s a tiger at the dinner table, though: she feels “orgasmic joy” when eating. Samir gets aroused just by watching her facial expressions during a meal. Having Mili be a sexual ingenue while also giving Jennifer Beals in Flashdance a run for her body language imposes on the reader’s suspension of disbelief a little too much.
Also gross is the fluidity between the food scenes and the constant reminders that Mili is skinny. She’s really skinny. She’s like skinny, you guys. Skinny with big boobs skinny. Her waist is so small that Samir fantasizes about encircling it with his hands. Idealizing thinness in a romance novel isn’t unusual, but it feels shocking and punishing to have these phrases sandwiched between frequent scenes of gorging on fried food.
Jenny Trout once theorized that in 50 Shades Christian’s forcing of food into the eternally-skinny Ana was a form of fantasy insert: the reader could daydream about eating while hanging onto the socially-acceptable body. This must be the case in A Bollywood Affair but it feels manipulative to be enjoying descriptions of delicious Indian dishes only to get smacked out of left field with another note about Mili’s conventionally-perfect body.
The point in the book at which I decided it was beyond redemption is when Samir’s ex-girlfriend (who is slutty, clingy, and opportunistic, of course) tells the media that he physically assaulted her. He didn’t—her injuries were a result of an accident — but Samir’s response is malicious and flippant. “Come on, Sam, baby, don’t be like that,” he says. “You broke my heart. I was upset. I thought you liked messing with the press. I thought you’d get a laugh out of it”. He acts as though women lying about their partners abusing them is a common thing done out of feminine revenge.
Mili, the special snowflake, meanwhile, deserves Samir’s love because she doesn’t believe the accusations. She doesn’t believe that the man she’s known for perhaps two months physically abused a woman she’s never met because she knows he’s a good person—even with pictures of the injuries in the newspaper. She ultimately earns his love—at least partly—by not believing another woman’s accusations of abuse.
I think the bone-chilling truth is that Sonali Dev didn’t sit down and affirmatively decide she’d emphasize her heroine’s helplessness or weight, or use the hero’s abusive childhood to justify why he’s such a dick. She wrote what she felt—and believed her readers would feel—was an erotic, redemptive, romantic story. These new heights of misogyny have become so commonplace and ingrained in the genre that a highly-praised debut romance novel featured ten examples. And no one seemed to notice.
Tropes will always be part of what defines a genre novel. What we really have to ask ourselves, though, is, “Why these particular tropes?” What is it about the contemporary romance genre that seems to justify sexist behavior and diminish abusive behavior in novels whose primary audience is women? Does it really need to be this way for us to enjoy our trashy romance novels?