By Sonali Dev
Much of the appeal of Pride, Prejudice and Other Flavors was the clever and insightful interweaving of the characters, themes, and plotlines of the Jane Austen classic with Sonali Dev’s own take on the novel. Between this one and the original Emma the integration is spotty at best. There are major plot lines and characters in both novels that find no parallels in the other. I won’t go into a long list here, but Esha’s strange supernatural malady and her miraculous recovery and romance are one. There was enough material and backstory there for it to be its own book. It was just shoehorned into this one and it was a distraction. It had no place in a homage to Emma and didn’t make the most of Esha’s story either. But the one that really hurt my enjoyment was how the Raj family are so ugly to Naina, the Knightly character. Especially Nisha, the sister of the Emma character, Vange, and Vange’s mother. I didn’t read the middle two in the quartet, so there may be justification, but since we see everything from Naina’s eyes and with our knowledge of her struggles, it was very bothersome.
Naina has been damaged by the lifelong cruelty of her abusive father. This has affected her ability to be open and vulnerable to love. She has dedicated the last 10 years of her life to rescuing the poverty-stricken women of Nepal and she has finally secured funding from zillionaire Jiggy Mehta. Enter Vansh Raj, whose chance run-in with a person he knows that he learns is surprisingly homeless spurs him to save not only his acquaintance but all of San Francisco’s indigent. While coming from a good place, this quixotic notion has jeopardized Naina’s funding. Instead of getting his own money, he latches on to Naina’s source. Because there is more in it for him to be associated with a real Raj instead of an ex-Raj, Jiggy Mehta cools towards Naina’s project. It’s really terrible. I was enraged over this.
Vansh Raj has a passing resemblance to Emma in that he is a do-gooder who wants to make things better for those who are less fortunate than him. Actually, there are quite a few interesting parallels. But Naina has very little in common with Mr. Knightly. Both Emma and Vansh are misguided, but in very different ways. Emma almost ruins the life of Harriet with her interference. Vansh, causes Hari, the homeless computer whiz he targets, an isolated episode of pain and suffering by not listening to the good advice of Naina (Knightly). But his interference ultimately saves Hari puts him on a path to health and prosperity. Sonali Dev’s parallels between Harriet and Hari are well done. (as well done as some of the connections in the first of the Raj series) but really, that’s about it as far as The Emma Project being a modern take on Emma. Perhaps there is a parallel between Naina’s mother and Emma’s father? But it’s is a stretch. A huge stretch. Naina is 12 years older than Vansh and has been a supportive presence in his life since he was a baby. So that hearkens back to Emma, I guess.
Dev makes Vansh the kind of guy who spends hours a day on his grooming and body sculpting because he likes to look good. Even though he is already too handsome to be true. We are treated a couple of times to a description of his long tangled eyelashes. And more than a couple to his cut and flexing muscles, which he likes to show off by wearing clothes two sizes too small. I mean yuck. It’s different if a great body is the by-product of manual labor or sports. But his vanity turned me off.
Another disappointment was the lack of satisfactory resolution to two important plot threads. The author meticulously details throughout the book Dr. Kohli, Naina’s father’s, evilness and cruelty, and Jiggy Meyta’s self-serving maliciousness. Not to mention their toxic sexism. I couldn’t wait for them to get the justice they deserved. Alas. It all happens off stage. We find out that Naina’s mom found the strength to leave her husband of 40 years in the epilogue. And the final straw after years of abuse was nonsensical. And Naina told Jiggy to take his money and shove it. We are just told that she did, but we are not there for the kill. Yes, I wanted retribution to rain down upon them and I wanted a front-row seat, but nope. And I guess Jimmy, the guy who cheated and wronged Hari never did get his just deserts at all. And speaking of retribution, Naina deserved a groveling apology from the Raj family. Instead, we get “I was a Bitch” and a “Yeah you were.” But Naina is not even in the room.
At times the sentence structure and word choice were awkward and confusing. I won’t quote specifically (although I can) because to be fair it is an uncorrected proof. But I noticed the same thing with her first book as well. And that was not an uncorrected proof. Ms Dev is a wonderful writer but needs a more vigilant editor.
Despite my problems, the book kept my interest. The romance was good even though it bore no resemblance to the romance of the real Knightly and Emma. And I gotta say there was a very hot sex scene that managed to be funny at the same time. I didn’t want it to end, and that is saying something for me. Thank you for that. The exploration and growth of the characters were well done. Vansh really grew on me, despite the things I didn’t like about him. I loved the way he and Naina learned to work together and became a united front against Jiggy. I was happy Naina’s project was saved. I liked the narrative voice. But there were too many promises unfulfilled and too many disappointments.
Thank-You to Net Galley and Avon and Harper Books for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.
March 5, 2022