A Change of Heart
A Change of Heart is my second Sonali Dev novel; I enjoyed The Bollywood Bride, and had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately, the misleading categorization (women’s fiction) and my assumption that like its predecessor (which is linked to this story), it was a romance, left me confused about what was happening at the start of the book. Once I realized it was actually a romantic suspense/mystery, I had to re-read to ensure I hadn’t missed anything. If you approach A Change of Heart with the same assumptions I did – expecting a traditional contemporary romance, you will be similarly frustrated. Both the plot and the event that brings the protagonists together are directly tied to a murder – and though it’s clear why the murder happened, everything else about the crime and the people it affects is so convoluted, it’s hard to know where to start with this review. Let me just say this – Ms. Dev has a way with words. Her character descriptions are vivid and she truly brings them to life; but unfortunately, the book is such a mixed bag of romance, suspense and crime, that those skills are not enough to save it.
When A Change of Heart opens, Dr. Nikhil ‘Nic’ Joshi, is literally and figuratively lost at sea. The love of his life, Jen, was murdered in front of him two years earlier. He’s never gotten over her or the murder, and is slowly drinking his life away aboard a cruise ship as the onboard doctor. One drunken night he thinks he sees Jen, and over the next 48 hours, he becomes convinced she’s come back or someone is playing a very nasty trick on him. It is a trick, but Jess Koirala needs Nic to sober up and try to figure out who killed his wife.
Two years ago, both Nic and Jen worked with Doctors Without Borders. While working in the Mumbai slums, a pregnant Jen discovered a black market organ transplant ring, but before she could turn in the evidence she collected, she was murdered. After her death, Nic learned she was working with a detective in the Mumbai police department – a fact she had also kept secret from him. After her death, when the detective asked Nic to help with the case Nic – angry and bereft over the loss of his wife and unborn child – refused. Jen’s killers remain at large, Nic is barely surviving, and the organ transplant ring is still operating. But none of that matters to Nic when he traps Jess on the ship and demands to know why she’s tormenting him.
After a traumatic childhood in Calcutta and a life changing assault when she was seventeen, Jess Koirala has become a successful Bollywood backup dancer, and single mother to her son Joy. Through no fault of her own, she’s also become a victim of the organ transplant ring – but just how remains a mystery until later in the story. When she targets Nic on the ship, it’s only because someone at home is blackmailing her – threatening to harm Joy if she can’t convince Nic to help her find Jen’s evidence against the transplant racket. She isn’t certain why her blackmailer needs the evidence, but she isn’t willing to risk Joy’s life if she can’t find it. Desperate, Jess is willing to do anything to save Joy. She disguises herself as Jen to torment Nic and force him out of his drunken haze; and it works. When he finally catches up to her, she tells him she was the recipient of Jen’s heart, and that Jen wants him to find the evidence that got her killed. Nic doesn’t want to believe in the connection between Jess and Jen (trust me, the book is equally confusing), and initially pushes her away. But Jess knows so many things only Jen could, so he decides to trust her, and together they disembark from the cruise ship and travel to Chicago to sort through Jen’s belongings.
On the drive to Chicago, Nic and Jess realise they are starting to develop an attraction for one another, but both are consumed by so much guilt – for very different reasons – about their feelings, that neither welcomes it. Once they arrive in Chicago and are faced with Nic’s family, the unusual nature of their relationship forces them to forge a new relationship with each other, and for Nic to reconnect with his family. The complex family dynamics and physical/emotional attraction between Nic and Jess are some of the strongest parts of the book – but the murder and blackmail continually muscle both to the periphery of the story. The ‘romance’ never gets a chance to develop before circumstances – and the discovery of the evidence – force them apart.
I won’t lie; though I felt sorry for both Nic and Jess and the horrible traumas in their pasts, after a while, their misery just made me miserable. This book is so depressing for so long, I couldn’t even look forward to a happy ending – I just wanted it to be over. Though I empathized with Nic’s sorrow over losing his wife and unborn child, ultimately it’s Jess’s painful childhood and the traumatic circumstances around Joy’s conception that garnered my sympathy. Her past is so dark, so awful, that it affects every interaction between her, Nic and his family.
Ms. Dev tortures the reader with a prolonged ‘will they or won’t they,’ and because the relationship is so slow to develop, when they ‘do’ – it’s not enough to rescue this romance. Nic and Jess spend the majority of the book denying their feelings for each other (you sense their desperation), and trying to overcome the guilt they feel about wanting one another. Nic can’t separate his love for Jen from his new feelings for Jess and the future happiness she represents. Jess, knowing she’s exploited Nic’s sorrow over the death of his wife and that she’s fallen for him, hates herself for the role she’s been forced to play – but remains willing to do whatever it takes in order to get back to her son. She yearns to confess everything to Nic, but resists, believing he can never understand the choices she’s made. Shortly before Jess’s true purpose is finally revealed, she and Nic make love, but there are so many other issues at play, the sex is bittersweet. It’s lovemaking, but there’s really nothing titillating about these two finally getting it on.
Jess flees to India and Joy. Instead of giving in to her blackmailer and handing over the evidence Jen compiled, she makes one last desperate attempt to catch him. The grand finale involves a kidnapping, a gunfight, Mumbai gang leaders, the police – and Nic (in a surprise appearance) – but ultimately, the blackmailer walks free. After all that build up and Jess’s anguish, I felt cheated.
Once the murder and organ trafficking plotlines are resolved, Ms. Dev quickly returns the focus to Nic and Jess (actually, Nikita), but it’s too little, too late. I was hopeful they could make a future together, but I didn’t believe in the model family and simple HEA Ms. Dev tries to sell us so soon after the resolution of Jen’s case. It was too easy, too good to be true, and too simple for this couple. I just didn’t buy it.