Rather scrappy; this feels like notes towards a larger and better piece about desirability in the romance novel and how both names and tropes (the bad boy, the uptight businessman, the … man with unwitting mafia connections trying to make good?) act as signifiers within that framework. Or something. Anyway. This week’s column.
Perhaps the most romance novel-ish of Georgette Heyer’s considerable body of work is The Nonesuch. The title character is as much of a paragon as his nickname implies; he’s fabulously rich, good at sports, attractive, dresses well without looking like he’s trying too hard, has perfect manners and charms everyone around him. Faced with all of this perfection it’s understandable that our heroine (nobly impoverished, clever, attractive) suspects that he has a dreadful secret and that he is out of her league. She turns out to be wrong on both counts—the terrible secret only makes him look even more noble, and he is deeply in love with her. There’s only one drawback- His name is Waldo.
Fashions in names change, of course, as do the traits we assign to particular names. A casual observer of this romance in Regency England might not find Waldo a particularly incongruous name for a romantic hero. And obviously people named Waldo do have romances and find love and hopefully happiness. Our belief that certain kinds of stories happen only to people with certain sorts of names is irrational. Presumably this is partly why early attempts at fiction by Indian schoolchildren so often feature characters with names out of Enid Blyton—we have absorbed the idea that certain sorts of literary adventures only happen to middle-class, mid-twentieth-century British kids.
When major romance publishing houses first broached the idea of books set in India, many people (myself among them) found the idea rather amusing. Romances involving American cowboys, Greek tycoons, various members of minor European nobility and Sheikhs of fictional countries all seemed, if not realistic, at least familiar—the prospect of these plots featuring men and women with names like our own was faintly ridiculous. The first India-set romance novel I read was indeed awful, less because of its protagonists’ names than because the author had decided to imitate the sexual politics of the 1950s.
But in the few years since, things have changed; there’s enough Indian romance that one is able to read individual books on their own merits. My copy of Shoma Narayanan’s The One She Was Warned About proclaims on its cover that the author is an international bestseller.
The One She Was Warned About features Shweta, an engineer-turned-MBA (of course) with an uneventful personal life and dubious taste in clothing. She runs into childhood classmate Nikhil, who since getting expelled from school has started a successful business and hangs out with movie stars. Naturally, romance occurs, though Nikhil’s complicated family affairs must be sorted out before any sort of Happily Ever After can be achieved.
Genre romances often fall back on a finite set of well-worn, yet effective plots: men and women are attracted to one another; there’s some serious obstacle or; everything works out in the end. Narayanan’s book is a bit unusual in that the misunderstanding (and by implication, the romance?) is between Nikhil and his family; the relatively uncomplicated Shweta becomes something of a bystander in her own romance.
Too often the complications of a plot could easily be solved simply by the protagonists actually listening to one another for once. Narayanan goes a step further in just about eliminating conflict altogether. The disapproving prospective father-in-law doesn’t disapprove, the bad boy hero hasn’t actually been a rebel since he was a teenager. In a way this only adds to the wish-fulfillment aspect of the whole thing; no parent would ‘warn’ its child about this wealthy, successful businessman; Nikhil has all the romance-novel appeal of the rebel with none of its considerable disadvantages. In a story that must somehow come to a happy ending no conflict must be too hard to solve. Unfortunately in this instance it results in all plot being squeezed into a chapter or so at the end of the book.
By now it’s a bit of a cliché to suggest that the hero is the most important aspect of the romance. It’s an idea it’s possible to take to extremes—in The One She Was Warned About Shweta is barely present. But at least Narayanan manages to make Nikhil Nair sound like a reasonable hero-name.