November Issue 2014

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 5 years ago

I am a sucker for a good love story. There is something thoroughly satisfying in reading about two people meeting, making a connection and fumbling their way to a happy ending. It’s part escapism and part wish-fulfilment. Rooting for a fictional couple to beat the odds and get together, and then revelling in happy satisfaction when they do, is what makes reading romance novels so much fun. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has even added a term for it to the lexicon this year: shipping. Originally used as Internet slang, shipping basically means rooting for a couple in a work of fiction (ship being short for relationship). This addition to the OED merely reminds us of what we already know — love stories are great (or rather, have the potential to be great if they are written well) and are universally enjoyed. Who among the readers of Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights hasn’t enjoyed Elizabeth and Darcy’s witty back-and-forth, or swooned over Heathcliff’s tragic love for Catherine?

Romances are even more enjoyable if they have characters which are easy to relate to, existing in a context that is familiar and recognisable. That is why Indireads, an e-publishing venture offering “romance for the South Asian soul,” is such a good idea. Love might be universal, but every culture has different ideas about romance. So Indireads’ endeavour to present stories which are, according to their website, “representative of the modern, independent, and forward-thinking South Asian of today, yet are rooted in our culture and tradition” is a smart, interesting initiative. Butterfly Season written by Natasha Ahmed is one of the e-book novellas Indireads has released this year. Unfortunately, the reality of Butterfly Season is not nearly as good as the idea of Indireads itself.

There are certain prerequisites for writing a good romance novel, and many of those prerequisites are just basic how-tos on writing well, no matter the genre. The writing should be engaging, the characters well-drawn and the narrative flowing smoothly in order for the story to work. Butterfly Season has a fairly interesting premise, but it lacks all the other things which make the story pop. The plot revolves around Rumi, a young Pakistani woman who, while on vacation in London, meets the charming Ahad. Sparks fly and their relationship deepens, and Rumi has to figure out how far she is willing to take the relationship without the promise of marriage at the end. True to South Asian form, there are meddling relatives trying to set up Rumi with their sons, and a disapproving sister obsessed with keeping up appearances, who is understandably shocked at Rumi’s approach to casual dating.

Rumi’s dilemma is one many South Asians can relate to — how to live in a modern, contemporary world without letting go of one’s cultural values and traditions. The character of Rumi is also a refreshing change of pace from a lot of the romantic heroines who populate today’s television dramas. Instead of the self-sacrificing martyr who patiently waits for things to happen, Rumi is completely unapologetic about going after the things she wants.

The biggest problem I had with Butterfly Season was that it didn’t make me feel anything. Let’s face it, we don’t read romance novels for intellectual stimulation. We read them to get invested in a couple’s journey from the initial spark to the courtship and more. It’s a form of vicarious living. But Butterfly Season’s writing is not engaging and there is a lot more telling going on than showing. I’m told that Rumi has butterflies whenever Ahad enters a room, but I’m not shown enough of their interactions or maybe not shown them well-enough for me to feel these butterflies along with her. I managed to care only mildly about what happens to Ahad and Rumi, and not caring about a romance in a romance novel really defeats the purpose of reading one. Some of this could be due to the novella’s size. At 118 pages on my e-book reader, there just isn’t enough space to fully develop the central romance. One minute Ahad is looking for a casual fling and the next he is dreaming about a lifetime together. There’s no development from one point to the other, making the whole thing entirely implausible — even more implausible than romance novels usually are.

Butterfly Season had the potential to be a really good romance. It had a lot of the elements — a smart, spunky woman, a hunky guy, the dimly-lit streets of London. But it lacked the other things — the witty banter, the emotional tension between the protagonists, the ability to make the reader swoon. While I did admire the portrayal of Rumi, her strength and independence, it wasn’t enough to outweigh the flaws.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue under the heading “E-Love.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.