After marrying off her two older sisters, Megha Ramnath's family couldn't afford a dowry large enough to attract a good husband for her. Instead they betrothed her to the first man to come along who would accept her meager dowry in exchange for getting a pretty bride. Life with her new husband and in-laws is nothing like Megha would have asked for if she'd been allowed to choose her mate. Despite them treating her like a slave, she's become a good and dutiful wife, but when her father hasn't produced the promised dowry within a year and she hasn't produced a child, her husband and mother-in-law begin to plot her demise. Accidentally overhearing their despicable plan just minutes before they are about to burn her alive, Megha flees into the night with no idea of where to go or what to do. Her parents would most likely send her back to the people who want to kill her, and to go to her sisters or best friend would only bring shame and danger upon them and their families. With no money and at loose ends, Megha finally recalls her husband's cousin who has always been kind to her, but will he help her when he's kin to those who wish her dead?
Kiran Rao has loved Megha from afar since he met her on her wedding day. Although he has fond memories of his cousin being like a brother to him growing up, there's no love lost between them as adults. While Kiran still treats his kin with respect, he knows they're not nice people. His cousin is a weak momma's boy, and he's found evidence of potential wrongdoing and overheard his aunt plotting against Megha, so when she turns up at his door in the middle of the night, Kiran is more than happy to harbor the lovely fugitive. In fact, he'll do anything to keep her safe and prevent Megha from falling back into his aunt's hands. Kiran believes that Megha's disappearance will eventually drive his cousin to seek a divorce, and he's prepared to keep her hidden until that happens, then marry her himself if she'll have him, society's rules be damned. But he didn't count on his aunt being so cunning, which may destroy their chances of happiness before Megha can free herself from her in-law's grasp.
For some reason, of late, I seem to have developed an interest in Indian culture. I'm not entirely sure why as India isn't a place I've ever aspired to go in person, but I've discovered that I do enjoy being transported there within the pages of a good story. Since romance is my favorite fiction genre, I'm always on the lookout for a romance set in India or with Indian characters. Shobhan Bantwal came to my attention for two reasons: First she's a local author in my area, and second, we both attended the same writer's conference a few years back. While I don't recall "officially" meeting her, I did take notice of her when she talked a little about her books in one of the classes I took. Consequently, when I got home, I immediately looked her up and decided to put The Dowry Bride on my TBR list, because it sounded quite fascinating. I've always been interested in the practices of other cultures as well as the darker side of life, and those are exactly the topics around which this book is centered. I have to commend the author for taking a hard look inside the persistence of the dowry system in India, despite it being outlawed, and the despicable practice of bride burning. These things alone made for an intriguing and suspenseful read that was only made all the more appealing by the inclusion of a sweet romantic element.
Megha is a typical young Indian wife who entered into an arranged marriage. She didn't really want to marry her husband, but she was left with little other choice. After making good matches for their two older daughters and paying their dowries, her parents could ill-afford to do the same for her, so she ended up getting the short end of the stick, so to speak. They settled for the first young man to come along who was willing to take a beautiful bride in exchange for a much smaller than average dowry. Unfortunately, Megha is now stuck with the mother-in-law from hell, a dominating shrew who abuses her and treats her like nothing more than a servant. Her husband is a spineless momma's boy who harbors no affection for Megha at all and barely touches her except to treat her like a sex slave. When her parents are unable to produce the dowry after one year of marriage and Megha hasn't produced a child either, her MIL and husband conspire to do her in via bride burning. Fortunately Megha overhears their heinous plotting just in time and runs for her life.
Luckily, Megha has a wonderful protector and ally in her husband's cousin, Kiran. I love the fairy tale knight in shining armor, and Kiran is definitely that. Far from being blinded by familial connections, he already sees his cousin and aunt for what they are. He's also been in love with Megha from afar since the day he met her, so he's more than happy to hide her and protect her from a deadly threat when she comes seeking his help. Kiran was perfect in every way, and everything I love in a romantic hero: kind, caring, compassionate, patient, loving, understanding, supportive, passionate. I could go on extolling his virtues, but I'll stop there. I adored him not only for giving Megha a much-needed safe refuge, but most of all for wanting to marry her as soon as she was free of her husband and not caring what society might think of him for marrying a divorcée, and not just any divorced woman, but his own cousin-in-law. Kiran gave Megha more love and acceptance than she'd ever experienced in her life, while also giving her the space and freedom to spread her wings and fly, which in my view, is exactly how a man should treat a woman.
I've noticed this book has rather mediocre ratings at online book sites. Not having read any of the reviews yet, I'm not sure why, but IMHO, it deserves better. It admittedly wasn't perfect for me. It did take a little while for me to become accustomed to the author's writing style, but once I did, it was an easy read. Ms. Bantwal has a rather narrative heavy style, with a tendency to perhaps go a little overboard with the rhetorical questions in the characters' introspections. Occasionally she also treads a little more into telling rather than showing territory, and she also explores other character perspectives that made me a little anxious to get back to the romance. However, this was the author's first novel, so I felt it was a great initial effort. The only other thing that could have been a little better for me was the ending. I'm not sure how the book was originally marketed, but I came to learn of it through romance channels. Therefore, I was expecting a traditional HEA, which isn't quite what happens. Instead, it has a strong HFN ending, with things gradually falling into place for our happy couple to get that HEA down the road in the somewhat near future. We just don't see it happen in the book. It's more about Megha coming into her own and finding herself, with the romance playing a part in that. So as a romance fan, I would have preferred for them to have a more solid HEA, but I still turned the final page confident that it will happen for them someday because they're still so much in love and committed to one another in spite of the roadblocks they've had to overcome.
Otherwise, The Dowry Bride was a lovely story that I enjoyed reading. Although Megha has a tendency to beat herself up a little too much, she's still a very sympathetic and relatable character. Kiran is the proverbial fairy tale prince, who I fell madly in love with. Their romance is sweet and tender with a strong emotional connection, just the way I like it. I came away from reading it, feeling like I learned something about Indian culture and social issues, which is always a plus. So for anyone who enjoys other cultures and is looking for a romantic story that's a little outside the norm, I would definitely recommend The Dowry Bride. It may have been my first read by Shobhan Bantwal, but I'll certainly be looking into reading more of her work.
Note: For sensitive readers, there is one scene in which Kiran and Megha are technically cheating on her husband. In my view, though, the husband gave up all rights to Megha the minute he started plotting her demise, but for those who are sticklers and can't stand cheating of any kind, I thought it worth mentioning.
The Hope Chest Reviews on Facebook