“I’m trying to figure out how to get my life back together. The last thing I need is a man to mess things up.”
The rule in romantic comedies is that the love of your life shows up right when you least expect. This is certainly the case for Layla Patel, who after a bad break-up moves home to San Francisco to start a recruitment agency above her family’s restaurant. However, a miscommunication leads to Sam Mehta, the CEO of a corporate downsizing company, also renting the office. The two couldn’t be more different, but when they discover Layla’s father has been trying to find her a husband online, they decide to make a game out of narrowing down the suitors together. You might be able to guess what happens next…
The Marriage Game. By Sara Desai. Berkeley. 2020. Paperback.
How did I get the book?
When I used to write an interview column for The Rational Creature, I worked with publicists at Berkeley to scope out womxn writers, particularly with debut books. I first heard about this title in one of their press emails and immediately requested it. I know I can always trust Berkeley for a solid romantic read.
You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!
What did I think?
The plot of this book is not brand new, but its representation of arranged marriage in modern Indian culture is refreshing. “In our tradition marriage is not about love,” Layla’s mother tells her. “It’s about devotion to another person; caring, duty, and sacrifice. An arranged marriage is based on permanence. It is a contract between two like-minded people who share the same values and desire for companionship and family.” You see these desires play out as Layla attends dates arranged for her by her father and discovers all kinds of comically dysfunctional men. But to Layla, this does not seem like the route to love, even as her mother insists, “if you’re lucky…love shows up along the way.” This is just one aspect of Indian culture that enriches the novel—food, language, and Bollywood films being among the others—though it is all often frustratingly (and unnecessarily) watered down for a Western audience.
Layla and Sam also diverge from the traditional romantic duo. Layla is described as “chaos in its purest form,” not exactly the perfect female lead. Despite arriving in San Francisco with “no job, no marriage prospects, [and] no place to live,” she is sharp, smart, and savvy, which makes her someone you automatically want to root for. I found Sam slightly less likable: a guy too focused on his career to let anyone in, living his life at a distance and wallowing in the guilt of failure. As his sister tells him, “You’ve spent so much time hiding how you feel, you wouldn’t know an emotion if it hit you in the face.” Both characters, however, have up until the point that we meet them avoided finding meaningful connections and instead indulged in meaningless sex. Soon, though, they start to realize, “You can’t fix anything until you fix yourself.”
Watching Layla and Sam work on themselves together is lovely, especially as they begin seeing what they need is right in front of their eyes. Toes will tingle when they individually wonder what it might be like to kiss the other, focusing on soft lips and forgotten smudges of food. Sam struggles to understand his reaction to Layla’s passion, his desire to make her smile in the middle of their fights. “Layla made him feel things he wasn’t ready to feel, she was redemption made real.” Layla is similarly confused by how Sam makes her feel safe, by “his ability to understand her insecurities and use humor to ease her fears.” He is the first man she wants to be with that has the potential to break her heart, and that is scary. “She felt comfortable enough with him to dance in a public fountain.” If that doesn’t scream how it feels to be in love, I don’t know what does.
🌟 3/5 — Good
The witty banter here is such a treat. When Layla shouts at Sam, “I can’t imagine a woman who would stick around after you took her for a nice dinner and then said, Hey babe, let’s go launch the meat missile,” I was actually laughing out loud. Her family members are funny, too, especially her cousin Daisy who is never without a snarky comment for Sam in the shared office space. As required of a rom-com, the sex scenes are quite steamy, too. My favorite involves the removal of a pair of Spanx. “There’s no sexy way to get this off me,” Layla tells Sam, “so if you’re imagining some kind of striptease where I slowly peel it off, revealing my body inch by inch, just tuck that image away and replace it with opening a can of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls.” It was something I have always wanted to see in romance and it totally delivered.
What muddles all of this goodness is that the pacing of the book feels off in many places. Scenes jump around in intensity without enough of a transition to be comfortable. For instance, we go from Layla and Sam talking about hooking up to suddenly having been in a car crash to another drama at the office. At times it was like being in bed with a lover who cannot read your signals. All of the ingredients are there, but, much like love, there are some bumps in getting to the happy ending.
Beyond the book.
It’s really exciting to see the rom-com genre getting more diverse. If you’re looking for a place to start on some of these titles, Goodreads has a list of 209 romances from writers of color. Two Desi-specific romances you might want to look into are The Trouble with Hating You by Sajni Patel about an engineer who walks out on her arranged husband only to end up working with him, and Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev, a take on Jane Austen’s Persuasion where a struggling chef is reconnected with her first love on a cooking competition show.
Desai also has a second novel coming out next spring about Daisy and her plan to enter into a faux engagement with her childhood crush in order to appease both of their families. Of course, things get complicated when feelings start to fly… You can pre-order the book now.
See you again soon!