Bollywood and the Beast by Suleikha Snyder caused me to pull a Bad Decisions Book Club moment at RT…does that mean I leveled up? Is that the Bad-Ass Decisions Book Club? So many questions.
As you may have guessed from the title, Bollywood and the Beast is a Beauty and the Beast story set in Bollywood–but it’s so much more than that. It’s a book about a bi-racial heroine not feeling accepted by any cultural identity, and it has a delicious May/December m/m romance on the side. It’s all the things, you guys.
For some reason, I woke up at RT at 2 a.m. and couldn’t fall back asleep. So I started reading this book, and by 5 a.m. I was still reading even though I knew I had to get some sleep because I had places to be. The entire next day was spent dashing between panels and parties, and the Starbucks across the street, where I was desperately caffeinating. I was fueled solely by cold brew and grit. It was worth it.
The heroine of Bollywood and the Beast is Rakhee Varma, aka Rocky. She’s a Bollywood starlet, but as an American (and bi-racial), she isn’t accepted by the Bollywood community. She learns her lines phonetically because she only speaks English (although she’s working on that), and many people assume that her wealthy father bought her career.
Rocky is filming a movie in Delhi with Ashraf Khan. For Reasons, rather than stay at a hotel, Rocky’s team (and father) decide it’s more appropriate for her to stay at the Khan family’s crumbling mansion outside of Delhi.
When Rocky arrives she finds Ashraf’s brother, Taj Ali Khan, haunting the dilapidated mansion like a ghost. Taj was once Bollywood royalty until a car accident left him horribly disfigured. Now he broods and tends to the roses in his sadness garden, like a true Beast-hero character.
Taj also isn’t afraid of the melodrama:
“You think to hurt me with the truth? I don’t feel pain, Miss Rakhee.” He leaned forward until the faint streaks of sun finally illuminated his features. “I’m made of stone. Broken stone.”
The tears she’d resolved to stifle sprang to her eyes unbidden. Not because of the vicious network of scars and the sunken lid where his left eye should have been, but because of what was untouched: the perfect slope of his right cheek and the thick-lashed, mutinously angry brown eye were still absolutely gorgeous. Half of Taj Ali Khan’s face was more handsome than the whole of many stars in Mumbai.
The other half reflected his soul.
Rocky backed up. Her feet hit the threshold and she nearly tumbled over the short divide. The raw sound of his laughter dared her to run…and assumed she would.
Everyone, since the moment she’d set foot in India, had expected her to turn tail and run. To give up and crawl back to the US regretting the day she’d ever wanted to be a Bollywood actress.
Fuck that noise.
Part of this book is Rocky not backing away from the critics who are so willing to tear her down for not belonging. She doesn’t feel Indian, but she doesn’t feel American either. She grew up and went to school in Chicago, but she doesn’t fit in her mother Caroline’s perfect upper class world. When in India, she’s too American, too white, an interloper. It’s a hard space for her (or anyone) to navigate.
The other part is Rocky not taking any of Taj’s shit. I liked the fact that, even at his happiest, Taj remains a lovable curmudgeon. It’s just who he is. And while he tones down the meanness, he’s never transformed by rays of golden light into a cheery Disney prince. In so many ways he reminded me of Piers from When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James.
I’m 100% here for lovable curmudgeon heroes, you guys. I consider myself a lovable curmudgeoness half the time. It’s hard to pull it off without making the hero just seem like an asshole, but Snyder totally does it.
Also Taj is about ten years older than Rocky so if you’re into relationships with an age-gap, here you go.
Entwined with Taj and Rocky’s story is Ashraf’s. He assumed the mantle of Bollywood heartthrob after his brother was disfigured and went into hiding, but it’s not something he truly wanted. I need to add a trigger warning for sexual abuse and suicidal behavior here. As a teenager, Ashraf was coerced into sexual activity by the woman who launched his career. Years later she still has the ability to destroy his career with blackmail and traumatize him emotionally. Her constant harassment leads him to attempt suicide, which is when Taj and the rest of his family finally realize how much pain he’s been hiding.
Ashraf is gay, and he’s not out. He struggles with his identity as a gay man, and combined with his history of sexual abuse, there’s a lot for him to work through. After his suicide attempt (and hospitalization–yay for positive representation of mental health treatment!) he realizes that he’s been in love with his family’s employee, Kamal, and hopes desperately that the feelings might be returned.
Kamal is older than Ashraf, stoic and quiet. He came to live with them to help Taj through physical therapy, and he’s one of the few people who stayed despite Taj’s behavior.
We don’t get as much of Kamal and Ashraf’s story as I wanted, and it’s mostly HFN not HEA, but I considered it a bonus since I bought the book for the primary Beauty and the Beast romance and didn’t expect a forbidden May/December romance at all. It was a delicious surprise, and if Snyder ever decides to write another book continuing Kamal and Ashraf’s story, I’ll be there with my money clutched in my fist.
But the thing that really, really worked for me about this book is that it’s about family, both found and biological. It’s largely set apart from Bollywood, in the secluded Delhi mansion. Ashraf, Rocky and Taj quickly come together as a family without intending to, supporting each other and caring for each other even at their worst. Rocky becomes the glue that allows Taj and Ashraf to come closer, and slowly the three of them become a team who will fight for and love each other.
So to sum it up, we have Beauty and the Beast, found family, surprise m/m love story that broke my fucking heart, and loveble curmudgeon. It was kind of like this book was written just for me.
I thought the ending to Bollywood and the Beast was a little abrupt and I wanted more of Kamal and Ashraf, but otherwise it was totally worth the twenty-ish dollars I spent on coffee the next day.
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Bollywood and the Beast by Suleikha Snyder
April 14, 2017
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