Latest review: American Betiya by Anuradha D. Rajurkar

March 10, 2021

Genre: YA romance

Release date: March 9, 2021

Rated: Bordering on Bookmark it! / 3.5 stars

When a teen falls hard for the bad boy in school, she begins to lie to her parents to stay in the relationship. As she gets closer to him, she finds herself juggling her identity, her culture, and the thrill of first love. Author Anuradha D. Rajurkar showcases the struggle for first-generation Indian American children in a realistic way with a delightful slow burn in her debut novel American Betiya.

Single child Rani Kelkar has her life plan in place: go to college as pre-med and become a pediatrician. She’s following in the footsteps of her aunt in India who would take Rani on hospital rounds during summer vacations to the city of Pune. Of course, that doesn’t mean Rani’s sole focus is her career. Her second love is photography, even if her parents don’t understand it. They see it as a hobby along with everyone else in the Indian-American community that dominates her parents’ social lives.

During a gallery showing where some of her pictures are on display, Rani meets Oliver Jensen. The tattoos, multiple piercings, and intensity of his gaze don’t scare her off, although she’s skeptical of him at first. His own passion for art and interest in hers, though, eases the tension between them. They strike up a friendship, and before Rani knows it she’s starting to like Oliver.

The feelings are definitely mutual. “Like” soon blossoms into “love,” and Rani’s heart and mind are with Oliver all day. Her best friend, Kate, encourages the relationship but cautions Rani not to fall too hard. Kate’s own love life has taught her to hold back, and she doesn’t hesitate to tell Rani to do the same. But Rani can’t get enough of Oliver and finds ways to sneak out of the house to be with him.

The sneaking part is the challenge. Despite the fact that Rani is 18 and by American standards an adult, by Indian standards—her parents’ standards—she’s not supposed to have any romantic attachments at all. Especially not with boys from outside their culture. Add “troubled home life” to the list, which Oliver has in spades, and Rani is managing to break almost all of her parents’ rules at the same time.

Yet the closer they get, the more Rani starts to feel like things are spinning out of control. Oliver’s mother is an alcoholic, and his sister is having trouble maintaining secure relationships of her own. Oliver turns to Rani more and more for emotional support, but what he demands from her becomes harder for her to handle and give. Soon it becomes clear that Rani will have to make a choice: Oliver or herself.

Author Anuradha D. Rajurkar captures the intensity of teenage relationships with perfection. Rani’s struggle to balance everything in her life, including her photography, with the need to be with Oliver rings true. So, too, does Rani’s willingness to compromise on her own values and morals. In the heat of the moment, she makes choices that favor Oliver but bother her the next day. The heedlessness with which teenagers go full throttle in anything is on perfect display here.

At times it may be hard for readers to buy into Oliver’s cluelessness about Rani’s cultural heritage. They both attend the same large high school known, as Rani points out several times, for its diversity and promotion of various backgrounds. Yet at times, it seems as if Oliver is discovering everything about the Indian culture afresh. In today’s world of social media and globalism, his all-encompassing naivete is hard to believe.

Rani, too, comes across as naïve in some moments. A brief encounter meant to show the existence of racism and Rani’s reaction both seem contrived, a narrative device to remind readers and characters alike that prejudices still exist in our current times. As sure as Rani is that breaking her parents’ rules is the right decision, in some scenes she comes off a little too doe-eyed to be believable.

The internal struggle she faces regarding those rules is all too real, however, and first-generation South Asian readers will completely relate. While a conversation at the end of the book with Kate comes off as a touch preachy, overall readers will enjoy this book. I rate American Betiya as Bordering on Bookmarking it.

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