Book Review: Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon

WARNING: This blog post contains spoilers.

If you’re following me on Instagram, you know it’s taken me forever to complete this book, mainly due to my own laziness. Well, today is finally the day I announce that I’ve finished it — and get around to sharing my thoughts!

Of Curses and Kisses is a YA #ownvoices novel that tells the story of princesses and sisters Jaya and Isha. Jaya and Isha are part of the Rao family dynasty, a line of Indian royalty that’s expected to uphold certain customs and standards of behavior (which are, at times, more than a little sexist) on behalf of its people. Isha is the perfect foil for Jaya; while her older sister is dutiful and sensible, Isha follows her heart, which sometimes makes her reckless. As a result, she becomes embroiled in a tabloid scandal that highlights the conservative attitudes of traditional Indian communities and their views on the role of women.

Following Isha’s scandal, the family sends their daughters to St. Rosetta’s, a prestigious boarding school near Aspen, Colorado, alongside the sons and daughters of other famous families, royal and otherwise. Jaya, suspecting Grey Emerson had a role to play in the scandal, comes to St. Rosetta’s with the goal of knocking him down a peg. Since the colonization of India by Britain, when the Emerson family stole an important ruby from the Raos, the Raos have been embroiled in a feud with the Emersons, a lesser line of English nobility. At times, the feud seems silly and serves only to reinforce the Romeo & Juliet-esque trope of star-crossed lovers — but the plot device also highlights the tense relations that still exist between Indians and the English as a result of their unabashed imperialism. Jaya’s reluctance to let go of the feud, even when she falls in love with the heir to the Emerson estate, subtly represents the generational trauma and anger of racist actions from the past, making this book a timely read amid racial tension in the United States.

The book is also a modern retelling of Beauty and the Beast — and Grey Emerson, said heir to the Emerson estate, plays the role of the Beast well. From the way Sandhya Menon describes his imposing, unkempt appearance to his strong yet silent nature, he epitomizes the classic fairytale character, while challenging Jaya to push back against the traditions holding her and Isha back from true happiness. Ironically, Grey is also struggling with his own family’s legacy, namely a “curse” his father believes the Raos placed on the Emersons when they stole the famed ruby. Grey’s mother died in childbirth when having him. Similarly, the poem that comprises the “curse” tells of the end of the Emerson line. As a result, Grey’s father believes Grey will die on his eighteenth birthday and has wanted nothing to do with Grey since.

Grey’s insistence that Jaya challenge the pressure from her family to live and act a certain way reflects the raw pain he feels about his “impending” death. He seems to want to live vicariously through her, since he thinks he is unable to stand up to his father himself. Yet at the end of the book, which culminates, fittingly, on his eighteenth birthday, Grey finds the courage to renounce his lordly title, giving Jaya the strength to stand up to her own parents’ expectations. At the beginning of the story, the two are presented as foils, Jaya charming and charismatic while Grey is sullen and distant — but by the end, the two appear more alike than different, showing that their destinies are intertwined.

The curse serves as a plot device that urges the characters to action, but also as a symbol of the story’s resemblance to the fairytale Beauty and the Beast. The strongest motif is Jaya’s pendant. Made from the supposedly “cursed” ruby, this pendant is rose-shaped and appears to shed its rubies whenever Grey is near. This directly resembles the rose petals that wither and fall in Beauty and the Beast, counting down the days until the Beast can no longer turn into a human again. While the pendant is presented as having properties that can’t be explained by science, Jaya and Grey disagree on whether the curse is real and the pendant is actually “magical,” leaving it up to the reader to determine how much of the story is fantasy versus chance.

Furthermore, the curse symbolizes Grey’s role as the Beast. Throughout the story, Grey resists getting close to people. Because he believes he will die on his eighteenth birthday, he doesn’t see the point in building relationships or doing the things “normal” teenagers do, like attending school functions. Only when Grey falls in love with Jaya is he able to shed the curse and become human, though “becoming human” is more metaphorical than literal in this retelling of Beauty and the Beast. The weight of the so-called “curse” is what gives Grey his sullen demeanor; when the pressure of the curse is lifted, regardless of whether a literal magic spell was broken, and he summons the strength (from his love for Jaya) to renounce his title, he sees that he will be able to live a full life and is free to open himself up to the world.

The similarities continue with the character of Jaya. She loves to read and is close to her father; she is being courted by a hopeless bore — but unlike the Belle of fairytales, Jaya does not come into the story with entirely pure intentions. Instead, she hopes to avenge her family by making Grey fall in love with her, only so she can break his heart. The action brings to mind Belle’s rescue of her father from the Beast’s castle in the fairytale, although her “rescue” of her family is much less literal. But depending on the lens you use to look at the story, either Jaya or Grey could be considered Beast-like.

Throughout the first half of the novel, Jaya is a difficult character to relate to and even harder to like. Her intentional cruelty toward Grey, while masked by courtly manners and shameless flirtation, reveals a darker side to Jaya than we see in the Belle of fairytales. However, Jaya’s character is humanized by the author when she seems to realize the error of her ways. In a climactic moment, she confesses Isha’s scandal to Grey, is convinced that he knows nothing of it and exonerates him, launching her on the path toward significant character development.

As I mentioned previously, the book has feminist undertones that are a welcome addition to this #ownvoices novel, without being too campy or overshadowing the main plotline. One example comes from the story’s most important subplot, the conflict between Daphne Elizabeth (DE) and Caterina. Caterina is dating a Gaston-like character, the brutish and arrogant Alaric, whom DE finds herself enamored with despite her better judgment. Alaric cheats on Caterina with DE, and when Caterina asks Jaya to intervene, she refuses. DE is presented in these scenes as an incredibly sympathetic character who is clearly wrestling with the inner conflict between following her heart and doing the right thing. But the solution to this conflict is refreshing, and in no way follows the typical YA novel tropes one expects from a “mean girl” archetype like Caterina.

Instead of pitting Jaya and Caterina against one another, Menon has the two reconcile when Jaya reaffirms that Alaric didn’t deserve Caterina. Instead of blaming the woman for getting in the way of true love, as less eloquent authors might have done, Menon puts the blame squarely where it belongs: on this scoundrel of a “man.” Likewise, DE’s character decides to come clean about her involvement with Alaric, but chooses not to get involved with another love interest, instead reiterating the importance of remaining single for awhile and discovering herself. The tried-and-true plot device of using another love interest to help a character “rebound” (for example, having DE dance with another boy at the final ball) would be all-too-easy to rely on, but the path Menon chooses sends a better message to teen girls. While romance is obviously still one of the main tenets of the story, it’s refreshing to see that Menon doesn’t cave to the sexist stereotypes promulgated by many classics of the YA genre.

Altogether, Of Curses and Kisses is a five-star read. The complexity of its plot, the gracefulness of its character development and the beauty of its prose make it a shining star of the YA genre. Sandhya Menon has done it again, and you won’t be wasting your time by picking up this juicy fairytale retelling!

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