Now here’s something you don’t see everyday: a contemporary romantic comedy/adventure set in India against the backdrop of Bollywood. I almost wish I could recommend it for sheer uniqueness alone, and for some readers that may be reason enough to check it out. I found Hot Stuff to be an interesting read, but many of the other elements working for it worked against it as well.
Tempe Walsh’s mother always dreamed her daughter would be a star, dancing on a Broadway stage or on the big screen. As a result, Tempe took numerous dance classes and gymnastics lessons as a child. Her father, on the other hand, noting his daughter’s natural linguistic skills, urged her to choose a more sensible career, so Tempe became an interpreter, working for a New York law firm. Then one of the attorneys at the firm introduces her to Ray Decore, an art collector traveling to Bombay to purchase a rare statue. Ray needs someone to translate Hindi to English for him, and Tempe agrees to take the job, figuring she can make some money while seeing the sights in India.
It doesn’t take long for the trip to go wrong. Several other parties eager to get their hands on the statue show up at the saloon where the transaction is set to take place. Before Tempe knows what’s happening, the place erupts in gunfire. Suddenly she’s on the run through the streets of Bombay with enigmatic Irishman Briggan O’Brien, a man who knows far more about the statue he calls Shiva’s Diva than he’s letting on. The statue, which portrays the Indian goddess Saraswati, is purported to be cursed, but everybody seems to want it anyway. After all of her belongings – including her passport – disappear from her hotel room, Brig decides to hide her on the set of a Bollywood movie directed by his old friend Jake Roshan. Soon Tempe finds herself performing the kinds of dancing and gymnastic stunts her mother always dreamed of, while avoiding the gunmen on her tail, getting caught up in the drama between Jake and his leading lady/ex-fiancee, and waiting for Brig to tell her what the heck’s going on.
There’s nothing harder to review than a screwball comedy, because what strikes one reader as light and fun can just as easily strike another as stupid and inane. I can see Hot Stuff being viewed either way depending on how you feel about this kind of story. My own response fell squarely in between. It’s a fast-paced, madcap tale told with high energy and a lot of flair. Tempe narrates it in first person in a breezy, conversational style that’s appealing. The story has a kind of goofy charm as it hurtles from one wacky set piece to the next. The author takes the reader all over Bombay to various interesting locales. The Bollywood setting is unique and well-done, really capturing the larger-than-life aspects of the production numbers and storylines.
I have a very high tolerance for wacky, madcap comedies, so the story’s over-the-top quality didn’t really bother me. At the same time it wasn’t as fun as it should have been either. Part of the problem is that even zany comedies need engaging characters, and I couldn’t have cared less about the ones in this book. Tempe and Brig have interesting backgrounds, but are otherwise paper-thin. She’s the kind of heroine who comes across as spunky and independent some of the time and not too bright at others. When Tempe learns her belongings have been taken from her hotel room, her response is to complain about her missing clothes first (“They got my stuff! Damn! I had a really cute outfit I planned on wearing just for the Ganesh festival closing ceremony thingy two days from now.”) and her passport second. Brig is the stereotypical Irish charmer who turns his brogue on and off as needed. The author tries to add some depth to his character by having him relate a sad story from his past, but the moment is so out of place with the rest of the book’s tone and over so quickly (he puts his head down and cries – two short paragraphs later he’s smiling again) it has about as much impact as a five second rainburst on an otherwise sunny day. There’s only a sprinkling of romance, and the love story is completely unconvincing. Brig proposes in the end, but I didn’t believe they were in love for a second.
The characters aren’t people we’re allowed to care about. They’re just cogs in the very plot-driven story. Often they did things that made no logical sense, just because it seemed like the author thought it would be fun to put the characters in quirky situations. In particular, Tempe is all too willing to go along with whatever Brig says, despite the fact that she barely knows him. Early on, she finds herself dancing onstage in a “ladies’ club,” simply because he ordered her when I couldn’t see how this would do anything to help them elude their pursuers. Later, Brig takes the statue and hides it. He tells her he can’t explain what’s going on, so she’s just going to have to come with him and dance in this movie for a while until he sorts things out. Does she ask him where he stashed the statue that almost got her killed? Does she demand that he tell her what’s going on? Does she go to the American consulate and try to get a new passport so she can get out of the country where people are trying to kill her? Of course not. She asks nothing of him and goes and dances in the movie. Later in the book she concedes she should have done any or all of these things, not that the realization prompts her to go ahead and do any of them at that point.
These are exactly the kinds of questions I suspect the reader isn’t supposed to ask, and can’t in order to enjoy this story. The plot really doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. It’s just a clothesline on which to hang a series of zany misadventures that are supposed to be enjoyed at face value. At first it’s kind of fun in a surface way, but after a while it got old. The characters were too flat and uninvolving, and the author gives us no reason to care about the statue in the middle of it all. Until the very end, when its importance is finally explained, the thing seems like it’s more trouble than it’s worth. At one point Tempe suggests just letting the bad guys keep it, and I was right there with her.
Sometimes when I’m reading a book for review I can tell many readers are going to like the book more or less than I did. In this case, I think there are likely to be some on both sides. If all you’re looking for is a snappy, fast-paced read set in an exotic locale, Hot Stuff might do it for you. If you’d prefer a bit of characterization to go along with non-stop zaniness, then it probably won’t. Hopefully I’ve described it well enough that you can figure out which side you’re likely to fall on. For me, Hot Stuff was an interesting read while it lasted, but not much more.