Book review | American Betiya by Anuradha D. Rajurkar
Author: Anuradha D. Rajurkar
No. of pages: 368
Genre: Young Adult fiction
Published by: Knopf Books
Published on: 9th March 2021
My rating: ★★★★☆
Rani Kelkar has never lied to her parents, until she meets Oliver. The same qualities that draw her in--his tattoos, his charisma, his passion for art--make him her mother's worst nightmare.
They begin dating in secret, but when Oliver's troubled home life unravels, he starts to ask more of Rani than she knows how to give, desperately trying to fit into her world, no matter how high the cost. When a twist of fate leads Rani from Evanston, Illinois to Pune, India for a summer, she has a reckoning with herself--and what's really brewing beneath the surface of her first love.
The book starts with the phrase: "He's my mother's worst nightmare." Obviously, every Indian mother's worst nightmare is their daughter falling in love with a tattooed white guy who's also an artist. So when Rani Kelkar, a passionate photographer herself, comes across an equally passionate and charming artist Oliver Jensen, she can't help but fall in love with him. As Oliver woos his way into Rani's life, Rani begins lying to her parents to meet Oliver in secret, and she even uses her best friend Kate as a scapegoat. Rani does everything to hide Oliver from her parents - her Indian, conservative and hardworking family would never accept Rani dating in high school.
But their secret relationship turns into a nightmare of sorts. Oliver's dark past resurfaces, and even though Rani believes she can live with it, Oliver starts showing an unusual interest in Rani's culture. From calling her 'Princess Jasmine' to bickering her to wear saris and Indian jewellery - Oliver starts giving away all of these red flags. As if Oliver isn't in love with Rani, but is in love with her 'Indian-ness.' Rani tries her best to evade these signs by attributing it to Oliver's tragic past, but all falls apart when Oliver crosses his limits and turns Rani's life and her culture into a piece of art.
American Betiya made me tear-up. It's one of those books that makes you feel things. I could empathize with Rani. Her immigrant parents have expectations with her and her fear of not meeting those expectations is something I could relate with. Oliver comes off as this perfect male protagonist at first. Not gonna lie, I was heavily attracted to this idea of Oliver. But as soon as he gives these major hints about his fetish for Rani, my brain started ticking off. It's amazing how the author paints this picture of Oliver - in one instance I like how Oliver helps Rani become more confident in her art and makes her feel special, and in another instance he calls Rani 'exotic' and mocks Rani's parents for being so strict.
I have a feeling that the author wanted to show us both these sides - Rani's embracing her roots and culture and also acknowledging the conservative family issues, and Oliver being troubled at being made to hide from Rani's parents (which is not normal in American culture) and being genuinely disheartened by it. I tried to keep an open mind and feel these two characters' pov. It does make sense for Oliver to become frustrated and also makes sense why Rani hides him from her parents (in India, most of us tell our parents about our partners when we become independent and working adults).
The book has a good pace to it. The first half feeds us Rani and Oliver's rise and fall in their relationship and the second half gives us Rani's journey to self-realization and discovering the very roots of her life. The pacing made this book a quick read for me. I also loved how Rani and Oliver's relationship gradually progressed, with them slowly starting to know each other. And I genuinely loved reading about their intimate moments - they were neither rushed or too slow.
American Betiya has the perfect balance of romance and contemporary fiction. It's one of a kind. Unlike most interracial romances, American Betiya shows the darker side of falling in love with someone who no matter what wouldn't be able to embrace the minority culture. And kudos to the author, for bringing in the concept of 'festishization'. Many people do fetishize brown culture and brown people, which is often overlooked as 'love' for that culture. The book was a perfect representation of that fetishization. Also, themes like microaggression, reverse racism (which in reality does not exist) culture appropriation have been conveyed through American Betiya.
Loved the narrative style of the book. Even though the book lacks descriptive narration, I didn't mind the heavy usage of dialogues. As I already said, the book has a nice pace to it and the second half of the book gets more interesting. I would have preferred more character descriptions, to know the quirks and the habits of our protagonist, but I do not even know how Rani looks like. All in all, American Betiya was a good read and would highly recommend it.
ANURADHA D. RAJURKAR is a teacher by day and a YA writer by night, who holds two degrees from Northwestern University. She lives in Milwaukee with her husband and two sons. American Betiya is her first novel.
I received a copy of the book in exchange of an honest and unbiased review.