#SVYALit Book Review: Rani Patel in Full Effect by Sonia Patel
Almost seventeen, Rani Patel appears to be a kick-ass Indian girl breaking cultural norms as a hip-hop performer in full effect. But in truth, she’s a nerdy flat-chested nobody who lives with her Gujarati immigrant parents on the remote Hawaiian island of Moloka’i, isolated from her high school peers by the unsettling norms of Indian culture where “husband is God.” Her parents’ traditionally arranged marriage is a sham. Her dad turns to her for all his needs—even the intimate ones. When Rani catches him two-timing with a woman barely older than herself, she feels like a widow and, like widows in India are often made to do, she shaves off her hair. Her sexy bald head and hard-driving rhyming skills attract the attention of Mark, the hot older customer who frequents her parents’ store and is closer in age to her dad than to her. Mark makes the moves on her and Rani goes with it. He leads Rani into 4eva Flowin’, an underground hip hop crew—and into other things she’s never done. Rani ignores the red flags. Her naive choices look like they will undo her but ultimately give her the chance to discover her strengths and restore the things she thought she’d lost, including her mother.
After I finished this book, I was torn between racing upstairs to write about it and racing upstairs to listen to a whole bunch of pre-90s hip hop. Writing now, music later. Yes, yes, y’all.
This review will have spoilers, so if you want to go in not knowing anything beyond what the blurb up there tells you, beware. The bottom line of this review is GO BUY THIS BOOK. Remember how it seems like the only stories that I can actually stick with reading these days (during The Great Reading Slump of 2016) are ones that feel completely fresh and new? Here’s another that fits that bill. I just want to see stories told by people we haven’t seen before and we get that in RANI PATEL IN FULL EFFECT.
Set on Moloka’i, a Hawaiian island, in 1991, Gujarati Indian Rani Patel is about to turn 17. She works at the general store and the restaurant that her parents own and is fairly miserable. Her parents, who had an arranged marriage, have a volatile relationship—her mother is often on the verge of suicide and her father is increasingly distant, relying on Rani to smooth things over for him, which, in addition to being a totally inappropriate expectation of a child, has left Rani and her mom near strangers to each other. She’s senior class president, but, as she points out, only because no one else ran. She has a couple of close-ish guy friends, Pono and Omar, but she isn’t exactly confessing any of her thoughts and feelings to them. She’s crushing on older white dude Mark (like, older-older: he’s 31). She’s also a rapper, known as MC Sutra, who’s constantly writing new lyrics. When we meet Rani, she’s just shaved off all of her hair and just seen her father with his mistress. Her relationship with her father is complex. Like, WAY complex. He’s always treated her as his little princess and lavished her with affection and attention. HERE COME SOME OF THOSE SPOILERS I TOLD YOU ABOUT. He’s also been sexually abusing her. It would be an understatement to say that her eventual relationship with Mark (31-year-old Mark) can be seen as a result of what has happened to her as she seeks some attention and validation from an older man who, much like her father, is a pretty awful person. And (SPOILER), just like her father, Mark rapes her, too.
The thing that seems to be saving Rani is music. She gets an invitation to audition for an underground hip hop crew and is completely surprised when she sees who is already in the crew. Rani pours her heart into the rhymes that she spits, revealing more about herself and the other women in her family. She’s smart and political and a feminist. But she’s also just a kid who has had some really horrific stuff happen to her. It’s hard to watch her make cruddy choices over and over again. There are many lines in my notes that simply note the place I was at in the book followed by UGH. She is a kid who has had horrible stuff go on, had no real support system, had no therapy, and now is replicating many of the same troubling dynamics and not learning who to stay the hell away from. She also blames herself for everything that has happened to her, which resulted in lots of “Oh, Rani, no” in my notes. Through music, she works out some of what she’s feeling and what has happened to her, and to other women in her family. Through music, she finds a community and real friendship, honesty, and support.
Overall, I found this to be a really interesting look at both a place and characters I haven’t seen in YA. Are we calling books set in the 90s historical fiction? The 1991 setting felt important because of the music that means so much to Rani. Will contemporary teen readers feel the impact of her references? Maybe not. A glossary in the back defines not just Gujarati words but also Hawaiian words, Hawaiian pidgin, and late 80s/early 90s slang. While it took me a little bit to get into the book, and the pacing toward the end felt rushed, once I got into the story, I couldn’t put it down. The author, a psychiatrist, includes a long note at the end saying that, like Rani, she is a Gujarati Indian who lived on Mokoka’i and loved hip hop. She also tells readers that she’s a psychiatrist and talks at length about sexual abuse and how it has affected Rani. She also offers resources. Rani’s story is one of growth and empowerment and is a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Publication date: 10/11/2016
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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