The Rules of Arrangement
While periodicals like Salon and The Atlantic sounded the death knell on chick lit back in the 2010s, I’ve been noticing a mild resurgence of the genre via reprints and new releases. The Rules of Arrangement is one of the latter, a modernized iteration of the classic formula of a young woman juggling familial expectations, romance and a social life while combatting traditional stereotypes and killing it at the office.
Like most young women in India, Zoya Sahni is surrounded by marriage-minded aunties. The upcoming nuptials of her younger cousin has reminded these fine ladies that Zoya has managed to slip under their matrimonial radar and evade being put on any of the websites where families look for potential brides. Sheila Bau, her father’s older sister and the most proficient (and determined) matchmaker of the clan, is determined to remedy this error and begins a blitz project of getting Zoya a husband. Zoya is not perfect Indian bride material, however. She’s aging – a whopping twenty-six in a matrimonial market designed for girls under twenty-five. And “she’s overweight, spunky and dark-skinned in a world that prizes the slim, obedient and fair.” She does have some saleable attributes, though – she’s well educated, from a wealthy family, bright, articulate and successful
That last is especially relevant to our tale. Just as Sheila Bau is searching for a husband for her, Zoya receives a promotion at work and her boss, Arnav Bajaj, advises her that with luck she might just be able to get yet another boost upwards – a position at the holy grail of her industry, a slot at the New York City office of Bucklebee and Owens, one of the top advertising and marketing agencies in the world. She has to earn the chance to apply by getting a high engagement rate on her next ad campaign, but Zoya is determined to do just that. There’s nothing holding her back. Zoya has had several initial meetings with prospective grooms but none of them have asked for a second date, so it’s not as though the husband hunt is going particularly well.
Until it is. Lalit Khurana, an old friend from her preschool days, and his family arrange to meet her and Zoya finds herself engaged quickly thereafter. She typically wouldn’t allow herself to cave to familial pressure regarding this issue, but she’d had a scare recently that had set her on the path of becoming a “Diamond Daughter”. After a particularly bad initial meeting with a potential mate, Zoya had an ill-advised hookup with an ex with whom she typically only shares “a joint and a snog” and a drink with. The resultant pregnancy panic sets her on the straight and narrow – and allows an actual friendship to bloom between her and her boss Arnav. The two had found themselves at the same pharmacy, Zoya trying to buy a pregnancy test from a judgmental clerk and Arnav looking for aspirin and he had come to her rescue by playing the role of her husband so she could make the purchase and by allowing her to take the test in the privacy of his apartment and dispose of all incriminating packaging in his bin. The test was negative, the crisis averted, but that fright made Zoya realize that she could destroy her family’s reputation with a single mistake. She has no intention of doing that to her loving parents, so off to the altar she goes. She continues to interview for the Bucklebee and Owens job, she just realizes her new in laws probably won’t let her take it. Still, a girl can dream, right?
If body positivity issues are important to you, this might not be your best reading option. Zoya receives a great deal of fat shaming, dishes it out herself to the aunties whose Rubenesque figures never keep them from shaming Zoya for hers, and she skinny shames her cousin Tanya and reminds her she’s flat chested (after said cousin endlessly fat shames Zoya). There is fitness shaming, food choice shaming, thinly veiled snark fests on having the right hair texture or skin color, comments on the importance of couples looking equal in terms of height and weight – I don’t think a chapter goes by when we aren’t made aware of some physical appearance issue. Part of this is social commentary. The author is highlighting how difficult it is for women in a country where marriages begin with a beautiful image on a website and brides are often treated like commodities rather than people. But if you are at all sensitive about this topic, it might not be easy to read this book.
The novel also offers social commentary on the whole idea of arranged marriages. There is the juxtaposition of the high level of education demanded of the modern bride and how she is to set that all aside once married. It shows how even beautiful girls, perfect for the ‘market’ are damaged by the process, and how many of the relationships don’t work and are nothing more than unhappy, life long compromises. I’m not sure how accurate that is but the author does a great job of making her point.
Don’t get the idea that the story is just one long gripe-fest, though. The novel is actually funny and charming and Zoya is a sweet, clever, self-depreciating heroine who, over the course of our tale, learns to love herself and realize her worth. She has had a mostly affectionate and supportive family (Cousin Tanya excepted), but Zoya had never internalized their love, listening to the negative voices in her life over the positive. That changes as the narrative progresses.
There are love interests here, obviously, in possible husband Lalit and boss rapidly- becoming- her- best-friend, the big hearted and charming Arnav. The romance is very much kept in the background until almost the end of the book, with the focus staying on Zoya and her journey of self-discovery. That odyssey includes some of the traditional chick lit features such as drinking with gal pals and buying stuff, though in Zoya’s case it is carb laden foods rather than designer shoes.
The setting here is amazing. The author captures the sights, sounds, culture, and people of Mumbai so beautifully. I loved this scene from the beginning of the book, which depicts something so different than what you would see on a stormy day in the U.S.:
Ooh, the rains! Finally! The thick, angry droplets are greeted with yelps of joy on the street. Giant mango tress swish like drunks in the wind and stray dogs hide in muddy puddles under parked cars. I get gloriously drenched within seconds into my short walk home.
Beautiful writing, the gorgeously and lovingly depicted environment, and a heroine taking a terrific adventure of self-discovery reminded me of all the best reasons chick lit was once such a popular genre. While the obsession with looks, eating and fitness kept The Rules of Arrangement from being a perfect read, I would still recommend it to fans of women’s fiction who enjoy stories of women growing into their strongest selves.