Avon Trade, 2004, 305 pages, C$21.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-059036-X
Don’t tell anyone (especially not you, Google), but I’m not above reading some romantic fiction from time to time. That’s right: In between my hard Science Fiction and my tough technothrillers, I can find a place for contemporary women’s fiction. Here’s the even bigger secret I want you to keep: Most of the time, romance is a lot more fun to read that the pretentious twaddle that traditionally passes for leading-edge SF. Romance authors, bless their comic sensibilities, usually have a pretty good of what they’re writing, and who they’re writing for.
And even when it’s not completely successful, competent romance is almost impossible to hate.
Take, for instance, Sonia Singh’s debut Goddess for Hire. Not content to appropriate the tone of contemporary young urban female romance for use in an Indo-American family context, it also brings in elements of superhero fantasy by giving magical superpowers and a sword to the narrator, transforming her into a modern reincarnation of Hindu goddess Kali. That’s a lot of baggage to cram in a 300-page book, even when you don’t discuss the tall dark handsome love interest, the death threats against the new goddess or the less-than-helpful guru with an insatiable thirst for Coca-Cola.
The strains that the fantasy elements place on the structure of a light-hearted romance are obvious early on: Since this is a nice novel, our narrator can’t indulge too much in the whole “goddess of death” personae, and ends up using her sword for strictly non-lethal purposes. (Somehow, I don’t think swords were ever considered primarily non-lethal, but then I don’t live in California.) Never mind that contemporary superhero fiction quickly leads to questions about vigilante justice, unavoidable violence in dealing with hardened criminals or the price that heroes have to pay: These questions are all neatly, almost blatantly side-stepped in the pursuit of a comic novel. And don’t expect sparks from the romantic side of the story either: the Love Interest is telegraphed early on and is achieved relatively easy as the plot’s multiple narrative strands fight unsatisfactorily to a standstill.
If “chick-lit” is supposed to be about young urban female professionals, Goddess for Hire‘s narrator only seems to be a professional in the art of not working. At first and even second glance, Maya Mehra isn’t much of a character: Thirty-something, jobless, shopaholic, superficial and under-achieving (“of all the ninety-seven adult members of the Mehra clan spread throughout the United States, ninety-six are doctors, the sole exception being your truly.” [P.4]), she doesn’t seem like much of a catch or a heroine until she gets in touch with her inner goddess –and even after she does, don’t expect much inner development as she enjoys the attention and does practically nothing to earn whatever comes her way. (This is one of the few novels where I would have liked to sit down with the male romantic interest and ask “Seriously, what do you see in her?”) Frankly, a story about the rest of Maya’s family may have been more fun to read.
But comedy can redeem a number of flaws, even when they concern the teller of the tale: Singh’s narration is just hip and sassy enough to make the novel work well despite everything, and her use of Indian-American elements isn’t just icing on a conventional novel: Maya’s problems and opportunities stem from her particular heritage, and add a lot to what could have otherwise been a bland (and far less likable) novel despite what seems to be quite a bit of stereotyping. It’s a fast and fun read, which is all I ask from comic romances. It’s just when the novel begs to be considered as something else that the strains appear. But for those who are willing to be indulgent, this is a breeze. It’s not hard to imagine the target audience for this book, and how it aims for quite a bit of wish-fulfillment in reaching that audience. On some level, you have to admire that kind of dedication. Much like its heroine, you may not completely respect Goddess for Hire the day after, but it’s utterly charming throughout. Which is still a lot more than I can say about the other stuff I read.
[February 2009: As much as I wanted to love Sonia Singh’s Bollywood Confidential, her follow-up novel left me unsatisfied. As the story of an California-born Indian actress going to Bombay/Mumbai in the hope of a star-making turn in a Bollywood film, it’s already a bit more culturally interesting than the L.A.-based Goddess for Hire. Unfortunately, the look at India or the Bollywood industry is shallow, and the ordinary romance of the plot does little to redeem matters. Characterization doesn’t go much beyond stereotyping, and the painfully obvious plotting doesn’t add much. The worst moment of the novel, sadly enough, comes near the end with a completely unbelievable speech that diminishes the heroine. (The choice of writing the story in third-person POV also takes away the sassy narration that made Goddess for Hire such an endearing read despite its other problems.) This being said, there are a few better moments here and there as the heroine discovers the many facets of Mumbai, and Singh does show us a few promising hooks on which a far more interesting story could have been hung. But the end result is barely worth more than a shrug. Too bad; I really hoped for more.]