Of Curses and Kisses
Sandhya Menon opens a brand-new series of fairytale retellings centered around an elite academy with a magical secret with Of Curses and Kisses, a lovely re-take of Beauty and the Beast.
Book-loving Rajkumari Jaya Rao of the Imperial House of Mysuru enters St. Rosetta’s International Academy in Colorado with one mission – to break the heart of an English nobleman named Grey Emerson, Lord Northcliffe, at all costs.
This will be an act of revenge for Jaya, as the Raos and Emersons have been at war for generations, with the main inciting incident being the Emersons’ theft of a sacred ruby from a Mysuru temple during India’s colonial period. The latest blow in their battle of evermore involves the exposure of Jaya’s little sister Isha to extreme tabloid-based humiliation by the Emersons, who have leaked rumors – accompanied by compromising pictures – of her kissing boys of a lower social station to the press. For Jaya, it’s all a matter of regaining the honor that Isha has lost (honor that in Isha’s opinion hasn’t gone anywhere), honor that has also jeopardized the prospect of joining the house of Raos to the house of Hegde through Jaya’s marrying into the Hegde family. The trouble is that not only does Jaya have no idea how to flirt with Grey (in order to obtain her objective), she also has no idea what he looks like.
There’s a good reason for that, however. Somewhat feral-looking Grey walks under a heavy burden he has shouldered alone since his father abandoned him. Thanks to a long-ago curse placed on them by Jaya’s great-great-grandmother, he will die as soon as he turns eighteen. As a result, he’s somewhat reclusive, but he’s brave and cares about fairness in spite of his cynicism – and does have some wonderful friends. But knowing he’s going to die so young he vows to never date, much less fall in love.
When Jaya comes upon Grey defending a student against a group of bullies, she has no idea what to make of the tall, handsome boy, other than the fact that he’s much different from how she thought he’d be. And Grey – trying to puzzle out Jaya’s motives while keeping soul in body – is fascinated by her. Soon they realize that Grey’s fate is connected to the ruby pendant Jaya’s wearing – and if all seventeen ruby rose petals fall away, Grey’s toast.
In spite of themselves and their thirst for revenge or release, the layers of self-protection that have been guiding their lives fall away from Jaya and Grey alike. But will the tear be mended before it’s too late?
There’s something more bubblegum about the tone of Of Curses and Kisses than Menon’s typical work, and it somehow manages to be very baroque as well, with its deep, dark Grey plot. It’s an interesting mix of real social problems (Jaya’s battle against stifling media and public opinions about her sister’s conduct; Grey’s awful non-relationship with his father), soapy teen conflict (a big subplot centers around attention-hungry heiress Daphne Elizabeth McKinley, Jaya’s new best friend) and fantasy elements.
I found Jaya a little annoying sometimes, mostly because of her self-defensive tendency to expect the absolute worst of certain people, which becomes subsumed by her intense devotion to family duty. This is something the book knows she needs to get over, but she constantly leaps to the wrong conclusions and it’s a pain to follow her at first, especially when she alternates between this emotion and panicked, frantic awkwardness. But on the other hand, she’s just a normal girl (whose sister is just a normal girl) who’s struggling to be A Good Princess and yet yearns to break free and feels the need to save everyone, by hook or crook. You can’t ultimately fault her for much of her behavior. I did find Isha more interesting than Jaya, but eventually she settles in; she gets there, but it takes a while.
Grey is much more sympathetic, though he too is so insular and traumatized and convinced the curse will get him that it takes some time for his layers to be peeled back. He’s a good guy, a champion of the vulnerable, and he’s amusing in his own way.
If you can’t tell from the description above, our hero and heroine’s big problem is miscommunication. If you hate a plot that initially and heavily involves this theme (here, it dominates half the book), then this is probably best avoided. For two hundred pages, everything hinges on Jaya NOT asking Grey why he sent pictures of her sister to the tabloids; everything else hinges on Grey never telling Jaya about the cursed pendant she’s wearing. If you can tolerate this without wanting to shake them (and believe me, I wanted to shake them more than once), then on the other side you’ll get a slow enemies-to-friends-to-boyfriend/girlfriend romance that’s drawn with Menon’s usual sense of detail and sensitivity.
And there are some truly moving scenes between them – specifically one where Jaya and Grey are in Vail for a class ski trip – that are absolutely worth bearing with the two of them as they course correct, and there’s some weapons-grade pining by the time we’re halfway in.
As I said before, there’s a bit more school gossip in this series than is usual for this author. The subplot is about Daphne’s affair with Alaric, who’s dating the seemingly-snobby Caterina. Daphne and Alaric are interesting in that Daphne’s using him for emotional support and vice versa physically – she knows but doesn’t mind, because no one else pays attention to her, and it’s truly tragic and one truly does root for her. If cheating is a squick for you – especially cheaters made sympathetic – then this book might not work for you. But Daphne emerges as a well-rounded character by the end of the novel, as does Caterina.
Our villains – especially someone whom I won’t spoil but is our Gaston figure – however, don’t have the complexity or life that Menon’s usual villains display.
But Of Curses and Kisses is a truly romantic and sweet story with some unforgettable visuals. In the end, it’s worth bearing with its bumps just to bask in its best qualities.