Book Review: Recipe for Persuasion by Sonali Dev

Title: Recipe for Persuasion
Author: Sonali Dev
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: May 26, 2020
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

From the author of Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors comes another, clever, deeply layered, and heartwarming romantic comedy that follows in the Jane Austen tradition—this time, with a twist on Persuasion.

Chef Ashna Raje desperately needs a new strategy. How else can she save her beloved restaurant and prove to her estranged, overachieving mother that she isn’t a complete screw up? When she’s asked to join the cast of Cooking with the Stars, the latest hit reality show teaming chefs with celebrities, it seems like just the leap of faith she needs to put her restaurant back on the map. She’s a chef, what’s the worst that could happen? 

Rico Silva, that’s what.  

Being paired with a celebrity who was her first love, the man who ghosted her at the worst possible time in her life, only proves what Ashna has always believed: leaps of faith are a recipe for disaster. 

FIFA winning soccer star Rico Silva isn’t too happy to be paired up with Ashna either. Losing Ashna years ago almost destroyed him. The only silver lining to this bizarre situation is that he can finally prove to Ashna that he’s definitely over her. 

But when their catastrophic first meeting goes viral, social media becomes obsessed with their chemistry. The competition on the show is fierce…and so is the simmering desire between Ashna and Rico.  Every minute they spend together rekindles feelings that pull them toward their disastrous past. Will letting go again be another recipe for heartbreak—or a recipe for persuasion…? 

In Recipe for Persuasion, Sonali Dev once again takes readers on an unforgettable adventure in this fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy.

Persuasion is one of my favorite Jane Austen novels, so of course I was going to read this modern romance that riffs on Persuasion‘s themes!

Recipe for Persuasion is a loose follow-up to last year’s Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors. The Raje family is still the center of the story, but here, the focus shifts to Ashna Raje, who was a supporting character in the previous novel.

Before getting too far into discussing Recipe for Persuasion, I want to get one thing straight, which is that the blurb above is very misleading. I think if you go into this book expecting a heartwarming romantic comedy or a fresh, fun, and enchanting romantic comedy, you’ll be both disappointed and quite possibly very confused.

Because at no time in my reading of Recipe for Persuasion did I feel it was a comedy. Not at all.

Which does not mean it was not a good read. I actually enjoyed it very much. But readers should know that this is a much sadder and darker story than the synopsis would make it out to be.

Okay, let’s get down to business. Ashna and Rico were high school sweethearts, very much in love, but each with a ton of baggage related to family expectations and demands. They dreamed and planned for a life together, but ended up apart after a really terrible set of circumstances, and the faulty communications at the time which led each to believe that the other had betrayed him/her.

(Yet another example of bad communications leading to heartbreak, which is a standard trope of the genre, and which drives me bonkers as a plot point… but I digress.)

Now, twelve years later, Ashna is a French-trained chef who’s struggling to keep her late father’s classic Indian restaurant viable, and Rico is a superstar soccer player forced into early retirement by a devastating knee injury.

When Rico is reminded of Ashna while attending a friend’s bachelor party, he decides to Google her. And when he learns that she’ll be appearing on Cooking with the Stars, he makes sure to get a slot on the reality show as her cooking partner. Rico is looking for closure, a way to get past the hurt from all those years ago when Ashna turned him away, giving into family pressure that he just wasn’t good enough for the high-class Raje family.

Meanwhile, Ashna is consumed by the guilt and trauma that accompanied her father’s death, experiences horrible panic attacks when she tries to cook anything not on her father’s original menu, is estranged from her super-feminist mother… and has never, ever gotten over Rico.

Their first meeting on set for the cooking show involves a near-miss with a very sharp knife, and suddenly, they’re a viral internet sensation. The pressure is on. Each wants to win… and also to prove to the other that they’re totally fine, which is so not the case.

Over the course of the book, we learn much more about Ashna’s past. Especially powerful are the chapters told through her mother’s point of view, which show her experiences as a young woman and the horrific situation she was forced into. Here’s where content warnings might be important: Someone expecting a romantic comedy probably won’t be prepared for scenes of abuse and rape, and I can only imagine how traumatic it would be to encounter these scenes while expecting a light romance.

This piece of the story is handled very sensitively, but of course, it’s awful and heartbreaking to read about. It also explains so much about Ashna’s experiences as a child, her parents’ marriage, her lingering resentment toward her mother, and her inability to move forward in a meaningful way in any sort of adult relationship. There’s really a lot to unpack here.

On a brighter note, Ashna and Rico have great chemistry, and I really enjoyed the scenes that show their teen years and the early stages of their romance. Because she is so traumatized, Ashna isn’t exactly a fun character (sympathetic, yes, but not fun), but luckily, Rico is — with his swagger, charm, and man-bun, he’s clearly supposed to be walking sex appeal, and this definitely comes through in the writing.

The San Francisco setting is a big plus for me, and I enjoyed revisiting the Raje family members from Pride, Prejudice & Other Flavors. As for Austen elements — the general themes of Persuasion are present, but not in such an obvious way that it feels like a retelling. As with Persuasion, the young lovers are separated in response to family pressure, but not really in the same way as in the Austen novel. Still, it’s an interesting way to weave the classic into a modern romance, and bonus points to the author for having Rico quote Frederick Wentworth’s “half agony, half hope” line!

Overall, Recipe for Persuasion is a very good read, although the balance between truly painful memories and emotions and the bustle of a reality show doesn’t always work in terms of tone. Still, I really enjoyed Ashna and Rico’s journey back to one another (there’s never any doubt, after all, that they’ll find love again)… and who can resist a book that lovingly describes so much amazing food?

Maybe that’s my main complaint, when all is said and done: This book should come with samples! I want to try every dish and cup of tea that’s described in Recipe for Persuasion.

Aubiobook Review: The Matchmaker’s List by Sonya Lalli

One devoted modern girl + a meddlesome, traditional grandmother = a heartwarming multicultural romantic comedy about finding love where you least expect it

Raina Anand may have finally given in to family pressure and agreed to let her grandmother play matchmaker, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it–or that she has to play by the rules. Nani always took Raina’s side when she tried to push past the traditional expectations of their tight-knit Indian-immigrant community, but now she’s ambushing Raina with a list of suitable bachelors. Is it too much to ask for a little space? Besides, what Nani doesn’t know won’t hurt her…

As Raina’s life spirals into a parade of Nani-approved bachelors and disastrous blind dates, she must find a way out of this modern-day arranged-marriage trap without shattering her beloved grandmother’s dreams.

My Thoughts:

The Matchmaker’s List had been on my to-read list for a while, and after a few heavier books, I thought this would make a nice, light change of pace. And yes, it did, but it was also frustrating and ultimately disappointing.

In The Matchmaker’s List, Raina is 29 years old, a serious career woman — an investment banker — coming off a break-up with the love of her life. Dev is another investment banker, hard-driven in a way that Raina isn’t, and always puts his career ahead of their relationship. Raina is so blinded by love that she puts up with it, until she just can’t any more. As the book starts, Raina is living back in Canada after her time in London with Dev has ended, single, and devoted to her grandmother Nani, the woman who raised her.

Raina’s best friend Shay is newly engaged, and Shay’s mother Sarla is planning the ultimate Indian wedding bonanza. Nani just wants to see Raina settled as well, so she convinces Raina to go on a series of blind dates with suitable men from Nani’s list. The men are, for the most part, duds — arrogant or looking for an insta-mommy to their kids or just plain strange, and Raina is so not into it.

It’s a fairly cute set-up so far, right? Raina wants to please her Nani, and she’s not having any romantic success on her own, so why not try some traditional matchmaking? Except Raina is still hung up on Dev, who stays in touch just enough to keep Raina on the hook.

And here’s where I got really turned off by Raina’s character: After a misunderstanding, Raina lets Nani think she’s gay. In fact, she confirms it, thinking it’ll stay between the two of them and keep Nani from pursuing even more extreme measures to find her a prime Indian man to marry. Of course, it doesn’t stay between them, and soon, the entire Indian community knows the “truth” about Raina, causing a huge amount of scandal and division, and leading to Nani being shunned by the women she used to be friends with.

Still, Raina keeps up the fiction, even when she sees that Nani has been browsing the internet to learn more about gay rights and how to support one’s gay chldren, even investigating reproductive options for lesbian couples. Yup, Nani is ready to become a gay rights activist in defense of her beloved Raina. Raina still doesn’t back down — not even when the boy she used to babysit, now 18 years old, uses Raina’s “coming out” as inspiration for his own, pushing him out of the closet before he’s really ready and causing a huge rift within his family.

On top of Raina’s ongoing lie, which feels like a cop-out to me, so unnecessary and causing so much drama and tension, she just doesn’t strike me as a particularly good friend or nice person. When Shay mentions that she’d like to introduce Raina to one of her fiancé’s friends who’s just back from traveling the world for the past few years, Raina labels him a drifter and dismisses him — and when she meets him, she immediately decides he’s a stoner with no real evidence to support her conclusion, and continues to refer to him that way to his face even during additional encounters. Judgmental much?

What seems the most unforgivable to me is the huge fight she and Shay have during Shay’s bachelorette weekend, when Shay hears from Sarla that Raina is a lesbian. Shay knows that that’s a lie, and confronts Raina, and the two end up in a screaming match, during which Raina says this awful thing to Shay:

“I wonder if Julien would still marry you if he knew what a slut you used to be.”

Really? Slut-shaming her best friend? And threatening her this way? Just disgusting.

As is the way with what’s supposed to be a breezy romantic story, things of course work out for Raina and she ends up meeting the man of her dreams, getting the awful ex-boyfriend out of her life, telling the truth to Nani, and making up with the boy who came out because of her and felt horribly betrayed. And of course, she and Shay make up and are closer than ever, with Shay supporting Raina every step of the way.

And really, I just couldn’t. How could Shay possibly forgive Raina after the horrible thing she said? I’m sorry, I don’t care how angry Raina was (without justification, I might add) — I think her actions and statements were pretty unforgivable.

Also, by allowing Nani to believe she was gay, she thrust her unprepared grandmother into a controversy that caused her all sorts of grief and turmoil. Raina later seems to be using the experience to show how sexual orientation shouldn’t matter in terms of being loved and supported by one’s family and community, but it felt like co-opting someone else’s struggle. Raina, a straight woman, pretending to be a lesbian for her own convenience, and somehow holding herself up as a symbol of pride and equality? No.

I wish I could say the story itself is charming enough to get me to see past these issues, but it’s not. It wasn’t a slog to get through or anything — the narrative moves along quickly, and there are plenty of amusing incidents and vignettes that keep the pace going. Nani is a great character, and I enjoyed the sections that showed the complications of Raina’s childhood, her mother’s life, and the backstory for her relationship with Nani.

The cultural elements are also quite good — I loved getting the little snippets about Raina cooking with Nani or enjoying their favorite Bollywood movies together, as well as the customs surrounding a traditional Hindu wedding, and can only imagine how spectacular it might be to actually be there and experience the gorgeous clothing and amazing tastes and sounds and smells.

Still, that doesn’t outweigh how offensive I found so many of Raina’s actions. I’d love to hear opposing thoughts, of course. But for myself, I can’t really recommend this book, despite its occasional amusing and entertaining parts.

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The details:

Title: The Matchmaker’s List
Author: Sonya Lalli
Narrator:  Soneela Nankani
Publisher: Berkley Books
Publication date: February 5, 2019
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 40 minutes
Printed book length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library