Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tropes and Tone: Lorelie Brown's FAR FROM HOME

When you begin to read a romance that draws on a familiar plot trope, do you have expectations not only about what will happen in the book, but also about the tone in which those events will be conveyed? When I picked up Lorelie Brown's RITA nominated short contemporary romance Far From Home and saw that it drew on the "marry for a green card" trope, I was expecting a light, funny read, รก la the film Green Card and other similar romantic comedies that update the marriage of convenience trope for modern times. So when I began to read, I was surprised to discover that Far From Home isn't a comedy at all. Rather than have her two protagonists marry for convenience and then gradually, comically fall in love when they are forced into far more intimacy than a typically dating couple would experience, Brown uses a realistic, even at times melancholy, tone to explore several rather weighty issues: sexual identity; immigration rules and regulations; interracial relationships; mental health and recovery from addiction.

"I would marry you," says Rachel Fizel, the white first person narrator of Brown's romance, in the book's opening line. Rachel makes her joking offer in response to Pari Sadashiv, a friend of a friend who has come to Los Angeles from India courtesy of a H-1B work visa but would far prefer to be an independent consultant than remain with her current employer. Rachel's friends all assume her offer must be a joke; though she doesn't date much now, Rachel spent her teen years seeking approval by sleeping with a long series of guys ("poor vaginal choices," is her wry description of this period in her life [Kindle Loc 289]). But later at the party they are both attending, Pari, a "gold-star lesbian," seeks Rachel out, asking if she's perchance bisexual, and if the "large bills and a job that doesn't keep up" might just be incentive enough for Rachel to change her joking offer into a real one (104).

Rachel suddenly senses that this could be a life-changing moment, just like the moment when she finally admitted to her best friend, Nikki, that she had an eating disorder. Her job at a small studio doesn't really pay enough for her to keep up with the loans she accrued while earning her MFA in film, and it would be nice really to share expenses with another person. Especially a person as self-assured as Pari; maybe some of that young woman's assuredness will rub off on her, Rachel wishes.

Though she's typically reluctant to take chances, Rachel decides that it might be worth her time to go on a date with the elegant, composed, and occasionally minx-ish Pari. A date which quickly leads to an engagement. Which in turn leads to the arrival of Pari's mother, Niharika, from India, intent on planning a large, traditional Tamil wedding. And taking up quarters in Pari's two-bedroom apartment, forcing Rachel and Pari into the same bedroom. And the same bed.

Despite the myriad comic (and painfully stereotypical) possibilities of the above situation, Brown doesn't play her story for laughs. Instead, she allows us deep inside Rachel's head, showing how her distant parents and own "craving to be noticed" and "abhorrence of feeling superfluous" have shaped her starkly judgmental view of herself ("I'm aware that I'm medically still too skinny at the same time that I feel fat as a cow" [791]). And how her admiration of Pari, which initially takes the form of wishing she were more like her confident roommate ("Maybe if I was her, I wouldn't have to be me"), gradually transforms into an appreciation of Pari's intelligence, drive, and love of her own body and the pleasures it offers her. And an appreciation of the ways in which Pari forces her/allows her to pull down her protective guard, showing her real self, rather than the self Rachel constantly constructs to win the approval of others. And, finally, an appreciation of her own budding sexual desire, desire which only burgeons when she can engage in sex with a partner with whom she is emotionally as well as physically intimate.

But falling in love, even when that falling is mutual, puts a lot of pressure on a person. Pressure that Rachel, still prone to the self-doubts and self-hatred common to those who suffer from anorexia, does not want to admit she's feeling. Pressure that only mounts as the day of her wedding to Pari grows closer and closer. Will Pari's family, as tight-knit and loving as her family is distant and cold, accept her if they see that her anorexia is not fully under her control? Will Pari still love her if she's still sick?

Despite (or perhaps because of) thwarting my comic expectations, Far From Home proved a deeply satisfying read, a romance that doesn't shy away from important issues, but which never allows them to subsume the heart of any good marriage-of-convenience romance: how two people who thought only to help one another unexpectedly find themselves falling in love.

Photo credits:

Far From Home
A Belladonna Ink Novel
Riptide, 2016


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