Title: Incense and Sensibility
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: July 6, 2021
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley
Yash Raje, California’s first serious Indian gubernatorial candidate, has always known exactly what he wants—and how to use his privileged background to get it. He attributes his success to a simple mantra: control your feelings and you can control the world.
But when a hate-fueled incident at a rally critically injures his friend, Yash’s easy life suddenly feels like a lie, his control an illusion. When he tries to get back on the campaign trail, he blacks out with panic.
Desperate to keep Yash’s condition from leaking to the media, his family turns to the one person they trust—his sister’s best friend, India Dashwood, California’s foremost stress management coach. Raised by a family of yoga teachers, India has helped San Francisco’s high strung overachievers for a decade without so much as altering her breath. But this man—with his boundless ambition, simmering intensity, and absolute faith in his political beliefs—is like no other. Yash has spent a lifetime repressing everything to succeed.
Including their one magical night ten years ago—a too brief, too bright passion that if rekindled threatens the life he’s crafted for himself. Exposing the secrets might be the only way to save him but it’s also guaranteed to destroy the dream he’s willingly shouldered for his family and community . . . until now.
As you might guess from the title — but not from the synopsis — Incense and Sensibility is a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It’s also a moving, well-written, and engaging contemporary novel about love, pain, and healing.
I&S continues the loosely connected story of the Rajes, a wealthy Indian-American family living in the Bay Area. Previous books have focused on Yash’s sister Trisha (Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors) and his cousin Ashna (Recipe For Persuasion). In both of those books, Yash is a background character — the successful, driven brother who can achieve anything he wants. He’s the golden child, the one everyone believes will do great things.
He’s also haunted by trauma, although he doesn’t even realize this until events kick off in I&S. As the book opens, Yash is running a competitive race for governor of California, and his chances look good. He’s a man devoted to public service, who truly believes that he’s called to make life better for those who are suffering. While popular with many voters, Yash also encounters the racism you’d unfortunately not be surprised by due to his skin color and ethnicity. An attempted shooting at a rally leaves Yash lightly wounded, but puts his trusted friend and bodyguard Abdul into a coma that he isn’t expected to wake from.
Suddenly, Yash’s world is turned upside down. He feels tremendous guilt about Abdul’s sacrifice, and is overwhelmed by an anxiety attack when he attempts to go onstage at his next rally. With only months to go until the election, and with a growing lead in the polls, his family is desperate to “fix” him. And so they turn to a friend of Ashna and Trisha’s, India Dashwood, a yoga instructor and Reiki healer.
India lives with her mother Tara and her highly emotional sister China in the apartment above their yoga studio. They’re not well off, but they’re getting by, until Tara falls ill and India realizes they may not be able to cover her necessary medical treatments. On top of that, China is head-over-heels in love with a Korean pop star, but the woman she loves is deeply closeted and insists on secrecy. China sees a rosy future, but India is afraid that China will be hurt badly.
When Yash reenters India’s life, it’s ten years after they spent a magical, romantic night together in which they fell in love, but then parted and never reunited. India has never quite recovered from the pain of Yash’s disappearance from her life, but she also can’t turn him away when he’s obviously in such pain and in need of help. As she works with him on healing from trauma, old wounds reemerge and are finally confronted, and Yash and India’s feeling for one another resurface as well. But with the election his to lose, Yash has to make some big decisions about telling the truth and taking a stand, and India must decide whether she’s willing to risk the peace she’s found for the man she’s never gotten over.
Incense and Sensibility may look light and possibly even funny from the cover, but it’s really not. While there are some lighter moments, the book deals with very real trauma and pain, and the author isn’t afraid to show how the characters are affected by their pasts in damaging ways. At the same time, the characters really are lovely and sympathetic, and I loved getting to know the new characters introduced in this addition to the Rajes series, especially India, who is just wonderful.
As an Austen retelling, I found I&S to be very successful. Contemporary retellings of Austen novels are hard to pull off. With the classics’ focus on marriage, their themes can be hard to translate to a modern setting, and many of the retellings I’ve read feel like they’re trying too hard to shoehorn Austen’s storylines into a setting where they just don’t work.
Not so in I&S. Sonali Dev doesn’t hit us over the head with the Jane Austen references and plot points. While they’re there, they work organically, so the story would make sense and be appealing even without knowledge of the original. And while some characters’ storylines are a bit more obvious — for example, China as the Marianne stand-in is destined to have her heart broken — I was still taken by surprise by some of the twists and turns of the story, and that’s a good thing. Also, for what it’s worth, it took me a really long time to figure out who the Colonel Brandon character would be, even though it should have been obvious (I won’t say why, because spoilers!).
Incense and Sensibility is a terrific read, both as a standalone contemporary love story and as an Austen retelling. I can’t wait to find out which Austen novel the author will tackle next! I’m so enjoying the characters and their lives, and look forward to the next book so I can stay in their world.
And as a side note — India’s yoga practice and her approach to life have finally convinced me that I need to find a good yoga class!