There are two genuinely honest characters in Roopa Farooki's fizzy debut novel, Bitter Sweets. One is named Candida, the other Verity Trueman. While these monikers may sound heavy-handed, Farooki makes them genially absurd by putting them in context. Everyone else in this boisterous, multigenerational tale is a congenital liar.
The fibs begin charmingly with the Elvis-era marriage of a wealthy Indian Muslim family's scion to a lazy Pakistani schoolgirl. It is an arranged marriage made possible by the obstinacy of the bridegroom. Because he has been educated abroad, he prefers being called Ricky to using his real name, Rashid. And his worldliness has given him romantic ideas that his family cannot fathom. Ricky-Rashid, as Farooki likes to call him, has the crazy idea that he should find an educated, literate wife whom he can actually love.
A crafty businessman named Nadim sees a way to exploit this situation. He gazes upon his bored, foxy 13-year-old daughter, Henna, and sees a golden opportunity. With a little coaching in sari modeling and a promise that she may never have to go to school again, Henna is ready to be thrust into Ricky-Rashid's path. There she is, "demurely holding her tennis racket and appearing to be engrossed by a volume of English poetry," even if the book happens to be upside down.
Only on her wedding night does Henna realize what she has gotten herself into. "No wonder her mother was dead and all her aunts such grouchy miseries," she thinks of married life. But Henna endures. She hovers on the edges of this book until she is a troublemaking grandmother. And the antic troubles of future generations can be traced back to this original deception.
Next in line for a mismatch, two decades later: the naive Shona (Henna and Ricky-Rashid's daughter) and a Pakistani bounder named Parvez. Parvez persuades Shona to run off to England with him. She goes eagerly, thinking of her father, since England is "the location of all his happy memories and interminable university stories." She arrives in that gray place in a brightly colored sari and is dismayed to find that, "dressed for a party, she had been taken to a wake."
Although it suits Farooki's humorous style to plant Parvez and Shona in the South London district called Tooting, she has more than literary motives for the name choice. The Tooting location, like many of the novel's details, has an autobiographical aspect. If anyone wants an answer to the question "How autobiographical is your book?" it can be found in an appendix meant for book club purposes. Other talking-point questions: "What drew you to this story?" "Are your characters representative of the Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrant communities?" "How has the Asian community reacted to Bitter Sweets?"
This addendum is annoying. More than that, it's unnecessary. While the novel suits the stereotypical book club's tastes for soap opera and international exotica, the planted questions demean it. It works quite nicely on its own wit and narrative flair. Farooki creates the strong suspicion that she is not bound by circumstance and could tell a story about any kind of people, especially when the saris become secondary to the general level of treachery at work here. As payback moves from generation to generation, the characters succeed beautifully at entrapping themselves in lovelorn deceit.