As a Greek American, I appreciate the value of filling up on foods your yiayia used to make and dancing to exhaustion ... and then getting up and dancing again. So right off the bat, Nisha Sharma's Radha and Jai's Recipe for Romance looked like an absolute treat, and I am happy to say I was not disappointed.
The story begins with Radha, about to perform (and presumably win) the biggest kathak dancing competition of her life. But after overhearing some backstage scuttlebutt about her overbearing mom Sujata compromising one of the judges, Radha has a panic attack and runs. We then jump ahead seven months to find that Radha and Sujata have left both Chicago — and Radha's chef father — so that Radha can attend the Princeton Academy of the Arts for her senior year and put the past behind her.
Jai is the incredibly handsome captain of the Bollywood Beats dance team, but he's got his own troubles. After his store-owner father suffered a traumatic brain injury, his older brothers stepped up to run the business. Jai feels that once he graduates it will be his turn to bear the load, but his family would rather see him pursue his dream of becoming a medical student at the very expensive Columbia University.
Despite being a privileged girl and the son of a shop owner, it doesn't take Radha and Jai very long to fall for each other. Jai understands Radha's panic attacks and aversion to public performance. He recommends that she choreograph the dance team's Winter Showcase, which Radha takes as a loophole in the promise she made to Sujata that she would take part in the senior performance. But the director of the school knows that the seniors will not win the Winter Showcase if Radha does not dance the lead role, and there is, surprisingly, a massive cash prize at stake that could make a huge difference to Jai's future in particular.
I enjoyed the dance of Radha and Jai's relationship, a push and pull made of more respect and encouragement than aversion. I sympathized with Radha's tumultuous relationship to the stage, as well as the new "stress cooking old family recipes" hobby that puts her back in touch with her estranged father. I confess I am not as familiar with specific Indian dance terms or South Asian styles of dress, so I was constantly looking up words as I read. Perhaps I could have gleaned them from context, but having my internet search results handy as a colorful visual aid was a pleasant addition to this Bollywood-level storyline full of dance breaks that all but leapt from the page.
As lighthearted as the book is, the story still dips a toe into the subject of panic attacks, living with family members that have experienced stroke and/or traumatic brain injury, and the question of loving something without turning it into a competition. I laughed, I Googled words, and I wept as I finished the book in the wee hours of the morning. It was a beautiful thing to witness both Jai and Radha find their joy.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to see what Bollywood movies are currently streaming. Plus, there are a few new dishes I want to try in my Instapot!
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.
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