Wendy: What if the average chick lit protagonist, some young woman making her way in the city, battling her job, her family, and men, headed out for a trip to Jimmy Choo, to be followed by party drinks with her girlfriends and found herself instead in the plot of an average category romance? Does the chick lit protagonist then toe the romance heroine line? Or, does the change of genre obscure the predictability of the plot? In Imaginary Men, Anjali Banerjee pushes her modern single gal protagonist, Lina Ray, to tell the lie of all category romance lies, “I’m engaged,” when there isn’t a man in sight. However, unlike category romance, Banerjee manages to show the reader all the cards she holds without ever tipping her hand.
At her sister’s wedding, Lina, cornered by a meddlesome family member and pursued by “Pee-wee Herman on steroids,” tells a lie of temporary convenience, “Yes, it’s true. My fiancé is quite high up.” It’s an untruth with more consequence than the usual white lies that ease our existence. It’s also one that demands a flesh and blood follow up. Not only is Lina not engaged, she has been single since the death of her fiancé, Nathu, two years prior. With her family giddy over the prospect of her nuptials, Lina must fess up or continue with her tangled web. She chooses to build a persona for her fiancé (a prince of a man: tall, dark, wavy hair, rich). Then imagines the man that could live up to her description (he shapes up as the fiancé she lost), she even goes so far as to give him a name, Raja, after a man she spoke with at the wedding.
What saves this plot from obviousness is, in part, the venue. Since there’s no expectation that Imaginary Men, a chick lit offering, will play out like a category romance, it’s a surprise when it does just that. After the wedding, Lina begins to speed date, looking for the man whom she will introduce to her family after she’s “broken up” with the Raja they believe she’s engaged to. As she dates, the imaginary man she created, the one who so closely resembled her fiancé, begins to change. What once was a clear image of Nathu becomes fuzzy, then slowly begins to resemble the man from the wedding. The real Raja.
And then, Raja shows up. He’s a real prince who far exceeds the Raja Lina created. This is where any further comparison to category romance becomes impossible. Banerjee never allows the feelings that spring up between Lina and Raja to be a foregone conclusion. Imaginary Men achieves something that few romances do, a real sense of romance (in the red roses and boxes of chocolates sense of the word). Lina and Raja’s time together is sweet, made sweeter still by how unavailable they are to one another. Raja is practically engaged to another woman—one he didn’t make up— who is an actual Princess no less. Lina and Raja are further separated by distance and culture. Lina, born in Kolkata and raised in California, straddles two distinct and divergent cultures. Unlike Kim Wong Keltner’s protagonist from The Dim Sum of All Things and Buddha Baby, Lindsey Owang a third generation Chinese born American who walks her own path, struggling both with fitting into American society and the Chinese community, Lina mostly rejects India (“I’m allergic to India.”) and embraces her life in San Francisco. For Raja, India is home. Though well traveled, unlike Lina, he doesn’t see India as simply over crowded and inconvenient, he sees it as a place where he can make a difference while surrounded by the people he most wants to be with: his family. Shaped as they are by the worlds they come from, the divide between Lina and Raja seems insurmountable thus making the possibility of a lasting relationship between the two something they both have to fight for. Whether they choose to fight for it is a question Banerjee saves until the end to answer.
Banerjee’s voice is gossamer like, whisper light and humorous without the relentless push for forced funny that can be found in some chick lit. The plot is pure romance without the constraints of the genre. Banerjee’s tells Lina’s story with a freedom that elevates it from predictability and a skill which makes the familiar comfortable yet never dull.
HelenKay: During a family wedding in Kolkata, India, Lina Ray announces her engagement. Her family is thrilled and immediately begins planning a big wedding. Problem is, Lina isn’t engaged. She isn’t even dating anyone. She’s an Indian-American matchmaker in San Francisco who gets swept up in the emotion of the moment and in the fear of disappointing her more traditional family members.
Since the death of Lina’s fiancee, she’s locked herself away, afraid to make a commitment or take a chance on men. Life is easier when she sticks with the idealized vision she carries of her fiancee, rather than deal with his real failings and the aftermath of his death. She’s an expert at finding romantic matches for other people but isn’t interested in finding one for herself. The one man who does interest her is Raja, the mysterious and handsome fellow wedding guest who lingers in her mind long after she’s returned to her cozy Northern California apartment. He’s smart and wealthy. He’s determined to marry off his younger brother to an acceptable young woman. Raja also is very settled in the type of woman he needs for himself – the type who will follow him to India, support him and help his mother. None of that appeals to Lina. She finds Raja demanding and rude…and she can’t forget him. His vision plays in her mind, slowly taking over the role of the imaginary man she keeps tucked away in there.
With Raja back in India and her family celebrating a false engagement, Lina returns to work and tries to find a suitable male to fill the role of fake fiancee. She suffers through a series of funny dates that amount to torture. Then, Raja arrives. He wants to hire Lina as a matchmaker for his brother. The professional relationship allows their friendship to grow and steadily mature into something else.
Imaginary Men is a fun and fast-paced chick lit tale about meeting family expectations and discovering what you really want from life. This quick and easy read suffers from a general sense of familiarity. Pressure from a well-meaning but overbearing aunt, a younger carefree sister, a domineering hero with a soft gooey middle, all are the ingredients in this been-there-before tale. Despite these issues, Banjeree manges to rise above the same ‘ole feeling with an endearing voice and smart international angle.
The question of whether Raja, who turns out to be an actual Prince, would find love and change his life for a woman he barely knows and is so different from his ideal is a question. While the romance unfolds at a believable speed, there is some question of whether or not the change in Raja and in Lina’s feelings about him from "yuck" to "I love him" are realistic. However, these faults do not overwhelm the plot. The story is told in a manner that makes the reader cheer on the romance and hope for a romance-conquers-all ending.
While the growth is limited and the plot treads a familiar path, Imaginary Men does have something new to offer in a humorous look at family life and love. This debut isn’t perfect, but it is fun and sassy. The universal themes transcend international boundaries, making this work accessible to everyone. And for those who love San Francisco, settle in and enjoy the written walk through town.
HelenKay’s Question: The I-need-someone-to-pretend-to-be-my-boyfriend angle is not new in romance. This popular formula pops up quite frequently in category romance. The idea is to introduce the hero under the guise of being a stranger or friend, then have him rise – so to speak – to the level of Mr. Right. Did Banerjee find a new angle or was this just the same old thing with an ethnic background?
Wendy’s Response: I believe this construct is saved by the venue and the relative strength of the writing. The romance between Lina and Raja is never a foregone conclusion and a Happily Ever After isn’t either. I believe that’s what saves this otherwise familiar story, the fact that you just don’t see it coming, until it’s already happened.
Wendy’s Final Thoughts: Imaginary Men is light, but never weightless. Recommended.
HelenKay’s Final Thoughts: A predictable but enjoyable ride. Recommended.