It is very rarely that one gets to see a true desi term in a contemporary book title. When the cover revealed happened for American Betiya last year, I was sold. The theme sounded so good, the cover was stunning and the title was an immediate catch. I’m so grateful for Lonely Pages Book Tours for having me on the blog tour and giving me a chance to read an early copy of this book. American Betiya follows Rani and Oliver’s tumultuous romance as she grapples with identity, culture and what it means to love.
The book starts with Rani in an art exhibition where she first sees Oliver. From the first page, first line itself, we readers are told how chaos is in the near future. We get to know from the first page that Rani is interested in photography, wants to pursue pediatrics, and is barred from dating. But Oliver makes her want to break the last rule, and a whole lot more.
“He is my mother’s worst nightmare.”
That is how the book starts, and that is how Oliver is described head on. I did like Oliver’s character at the beginning. He was amusing and his sweet handling of the relationship made me gooey inside. And then the signs showed up and I was screaming in my head for Rani – get out, get out, get out! I think the author did a good job with Oliver because no matter how much I disliked him, I was also marveling at the way his personality was developed, his character arc shown and portrayed in the book. The red signs do appear from the first meet itself, really, but the manipulation in his words is pretty inevitable and we readers, along with Rani, fall under his charms too.
Rani was a highly relatable character, I won’t lie. It is pretty universal about desi parents being hardcore about relationships and dating during teen years, and the way that we kids defy them anyway. Rani’s sneaky outings to go and meet Oliver, the phone calls she disguises as being from her best friend – these instances were so relatable that it took me back to my first dating years when I was sixteen. I couldn’t help but giggle through those parts.
But there were certain points where Rani’s character also infuriated me. For one, her oblivious to Indian items like tandoor when she claims to love India. It felt very weird that someone who loved her culture so much wouldn’t know what a damn tandoor was. Besides, there were some instances where her thoughts were so occupied with Oliver that it became a nuisance to read. I understand, you are in love. But still –
And the first half of the story dragged so much. For real. For fifty percent of the book, there were no such incidents that would excite me. A lot of things felt repetitive, and while I enjoyed all of the dates that the two love birds went to, I don’t think I needed heavy descriptions of all of them. Some parts from the first few chapters could have been cut out and the story would have been completely fine, I feel. They felt rushed – the whole romance felt rushed, and hence, I couldn’t really find myself invested in or rooting for them.
Again, while everything was relatable, I also did feel that the extent of ‘no dating’ rule was very exaggerated. I find it hard to believe that the simple mention of a boy or dating could turn her mother’s mood foul – that was a little too much, I feel.
Another thing I wish was more extensively dealt with was grief. Having loved her grandpa so much, I think we didn’t see enough of Rani mourning him. Those chapters were very rushed, and her repenting the previous drama back with her best friend and Oliver. Which was, to be honest, a little throwdown. But then again, people grieve in different ways, so that is that too.
I think the fact that it took so long for the climactic elements to step in that I lost a lot of my patience and interest in the actual story. It was 70% romance and other 30% whining and daydreaming and complaining without much happening.
At a point, Rani and Oliver got very annoying. At a point, I was just telling the story to move somewhere, to like maybe have the parents find out or something. Nothing of that sort happened but something else did which was – well, quiet horrifying.The play with culture identities and exoticization, fetishization of Indians was portrayed to well. A lot of Oliver’s actions towards the later half of the book infuriated me so much, horrified me, and my heart went out for Rani. No one deserves to go through something like that – no one. I commend the author for taking up such a theme and seamlessly incorporating it into the narration.
The subtle racism against Indians in America was also spot on. Her peers calling Rani the Gandhi Girl, the little comments against her traditional wear on Halloween – they might seem funny and unrelatable but such things happen and keeps happening.
The writing and narration were kind of choppy at times, but I enjoyed the way Rani’s voice seeped out through the words. For a debut, I think it is pretty decent, that makes a reader scroll through or flick the pages. She took Indian culture and incorporated it in the story in such a way that once you are finished, you learn something about our culture and traditions. It isn’t entirely preachy.
So, yes, there were a few qualms I had with the story, things that bugged me and parts that bored me. Yet, it was an okay read, especially the end was good I think (which, again, I wish was a bit more nuanced and not rushed), and I think a lot of desi readers are going to find it highly relatable too. It’s a fresh debut and I’ll be looking forward to more from the author!
American Betiya | Goodreads
Fans of Sandhya Menon, Erika Sanchez and Jandy Nelson will identify with this powerful story of a young artist grappling with first love, family boundaries, and the complications of a cross-cultural relationship.
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.
Winner of the SCBWI Emerging Voices award, Anuradha Rajurkar takes an honest look at the ways cultures can clash in an interracial relationship. Braiding together themes of sexuality, artistic expression, and appropriation, she gives voice to a girl claiming ownership of her identity, one shattered stereotype at a time.
Anuradha Rajurkar | Website
Anuradha D. Rajurkar is the national recipient of the SCBWI Emerging Voices Award for her contemporary debut novel, American Betiya. Born and raised in the Chicago area to Indian immigrant parents, Anuradha earned two degrees from Northwestern University, and for many years had the joy of being a public school teacher by day, writer by night.Nowadays, when she’s not writing or reading, you can find Anuradha exploring the shores of Lake Michigan with her family, obsessing over her garden, watching old horror flicks with her sons, eating too many baked yummies, or roguishly knitting sweaters without their patterns. She hopes her stories will inspire teens to embrace their unique identities and inner badass despite outside pressures and cultural expectations. American Betiya releases on March 9, 2021 by Knopf Books for Young Readers/Penguin Random House.