Incense and Sensibility
Sonali Dev delivers a charming, poignant love story in this third offering in her Raje Family Austen-inspired series. You do not have to read the others to enjoy Incense and Sensibility.
Yash Raje, California’s first Indian-American gubernatorial candidate, has always looked at his privilege as a test. It’s a chance to prove that he is worthy of all the blessings and opportunities he’s been given – a chance that comes with the responsibility to change the world. He’s currently in a back-and-forth dance for dominance in the polls with his opponent and plans to use his rallies as the impetus to push himself into the lead. A gig at the college campus should be an easy one. The young students see in the (almost) equally young Yash a compatriot who can empathize with what they think and feel about the world, someone who shares their issues and concerns. Yash steps on to the stage expecting to stand awash in their approbation. Instead, he is bombarded with bullets.
When he awakens after surgery, Yash struggles to deal with the fact that while his injuries from the attack are relatively minor, his bodyguard Abdul took a bullet meant for him and is likely to die because he protected Yash. Yash’s family want him to take advantage of the situation, to step up to the podium and hammer home the importance of gun control while he still bears the wounds of the assault and Abdul, father to a week-old baby, is still fighting for his life. Yash tries to go along with the program, scheduling another rally a few weeks after the shooting, but has such a severe panic attack just feet from the stage that he can’t go on. The people who waited for hours to hear him speak will have to go home disappointed. Good news, though. His sister advises him, “I think we have something we can give them. Abdul’s blood pressure is dropping.” Good old Abdul, always there when you need him.
May I just take a minute here to say how utterly distasteful I found the Raje family’s focus on the election? Yash is barely out of anesthesia before they are talking about poll numbers, and as they await news on Abdul’s blood pressure crisis all they can speak of is how Yash has to get out there and win. There is less concern about Yash’s mental state than there is about how his mental state will affect his appeal to the voters!
Naturally, and with so much at stake, the family can’t afford to hire a psychiatrist to treat Yash’s problems and rely on something as flimsy as patient confidentiality and the backing of the courts for secrecy. It makes much more sense to contact India Dashwood, one of California’s foremost stress management coaches, who is also a family friend.
India wants to be an emotional support for the Raje family but doesn’t particularly want to interact with Yash. In fact, neither Yash nor India wants to work together. Unbeknownst to their families, they had connected after one of his sisters’ weddings and had a magical night together. But Yash left for a trip the next day and came back “spoken for” by another woman. Neither knows how to say no to the Rajes without talking about that night, which they most emphatically don’t want to do, so they wind up reluctantly agreeing to give therapy a go. Their past experience creates a momentary awkwardness between them when they meet for their first appointment but that quickly dissipates in the face of their amazing chemistry.
I read romance for the love story, and I found the one between Yash and India marvelous. They bring out the very best in each other. Yash has been on the campaign trail for one public office or another for so long he has forgotten what he is working for and cares only about winning. India helps him to reconnect with his idealism, his love for the people he represents and his dreams for a brighter tomorrow. She also leads him to achieve a calmness and serenity that he has long needed but has never been able to find. With India he is his most authentic self and I loved how sweet and tender the interplay between them was.
Yash assists India in becoming more fully herself, too. For years she has been reserved, being loving to her family and friends but never being vulnerable before them. She has also taken on all the responsibilities for the household, caring for her sick mother and juggling their extremely precarious financial situation alone. Yash encourages her to allow others to be as strong for her as she is for them and to take help when she needs it.
Another thing I really loved is how much her culture is a part of India’s lifestyle, from praying to Ganesha to treating yoga as a spiritual practice. A lot of times – other than eating ethnic foods and talking about being a minority – characters of color completely resemble their white counterparts. In this case I felt like I got to know someone who was fully immersed in her heritage while still being a modern American woman. The author also does a fantastic job depicting India’s professional skills; her sense of calm and her ability to pass that to others leapt off the page
The book is a pleasure to read. Dev has a smooth, clean writing style that makes the story easy to follow and enjoy. The plot is taut and well-paced, every issue is clearly addressed.
There are a couple of flaws, though. I’ve mentioned the family’s almost offensive focus on the election, but I also questioned the logic behind Yash going to India for therapy. It’s not that I disputed using an alternative choice of medicine, but I disagreed with the Raje’s reasoning regarding how voters would respond, and which course was safer as regards privacy. Additionally, Dev’s novels are always high on drama and low on reality and this story is no exception. Histrionics abound, especially in the secondary romance between India’s sister China and her lover Song, a famous actress. The obstacles that keep Yash and India apart are also overblown and frankly, I didn’t like Yash at first when he was apart from India. He was too slick and career focused. As it says in the book,
“For the past ten years (he) had lied. Even as the lie became bigger, he’d let it slide. He’d put the election before the truth. He’d believed the narrative that you had to come by power first, then you could do the work you held dear.”
Those factors kept a good book from being a great one, but I would still recommend Incense and Sensibility to those who love Dev’s work or anyone who enjoys romances about liberal politicians.