Alisha Rai’s “Modern Romance” trilogy provides an in-depth look at how recent technological developments have shaped the quintessential quest for love. With her characteristic eye to complexity and inclusion, Rai creates a world where the internet is both a problem and solution to building connections IRL.
The Right Swipe (2019) begins the series with an exploration of dating apps and the new digital behaviors—like ghosting and unsolicited intimate photos—that go along with them. At the same time, the novel shows us the challenges facing women in the male-dominated tech industry, and how one woman, Rhiannon Hunter, navigates a past of discrimination, harassment, and verbal abuse as she breaks the glass ceiling. Rai’s male lead, Samson Lima, retired early from the NFL because of concerns about brain injury and is seeking his next chapter as an infamous former celebrity. This steamy novel begins with flashbacks to a transformational night between our two characters, breaking with a common convention to build heat as the plot unwinds. Rhiannon’s character demonstrates the double binds for women in leadership roles, as she grapples with her own gender identity and competing expectations for how women should dress, act, feel.
Girl Gone Viral (2020) shows the real-life impact of going viral through no effort of your own. This novel is particularly interested because of how Rai revisits the trope of damsel in distress through the relationship between Katrina King and her guard Jasvinder (Jas) Singh. Both Katrina and Jas grapple with mental health issues from past trauma—for Katrina, it was a controlling, abusive father and kidnapping, and for Jas, his military experience in Iraq. As in other novels, Rai depicts mental health issues with thoughtfulness, realism, and compassion, and shows the hard work and interventions it takes to build better mental health—the novel opens with Katrina in a therapy session. I appreciate that Rai doesn’t suggest that love alone will heal past trauma; instead, she shows how these experiences shape the ways that Katrina and Jas connect with each other, their families, and the broader world.
Finally, First Comes Like (2021) explores the intersection between influencer culture and the Bollywood/Hollywood nexus. Jia Ahmed is a beauty influencer who struggles to create new content, and Dev Dixit is a Bollywood star trying to make it in Hollywood on his own rather than on family name-recognition and legacy. Jia thinks she’s been communicating online with Dev, only to discover she’s the victim of catfishing. The novel employs the popular fake relationship trope, among others, and explores the various ways two complex, careful individuals come to know each other and themselves. One interesting aspect of this novel is how Rai obliquely references the pandemic—several characters have “been sick” and travel has been limited; one of Jia’s sisters was sick and still grappling with lung issues. COVID-19 is never named, but its traces are present in the novel. First Comes Like builds heat and courtship through the novel with minimal explicit sex scenes
All three novels show us individuals rooted in family and friendship. Rhiannon and Katrina’s friendship and business partnership centers the first two novels, and Jia becomes part of this
power trilogy in the third. This series also intersects with Rai’s previous Forbidden Hearts series, showing her deft ability to develop intricate family and friendship narratives. Rai excels at portraying multi-generation South Asian immigrant families, like Jia’s Pakistani American family, and Jas’ Sikh Punjabi American family. Culture, religion, and tradition shape these characters lives, and Rai illustrates the various ways they maintain and transform these practices in contemporary America.
By Dr. Jessica Lyn Van Slooten
Jessica Lyn Van Slooten is an Associate Professor of English, Writing, and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. She teaches courses on women writers, gender and popular culture, romance writing, and more. Jessica has published numerous articles on teaching and assessing gender studies courses, and popular romance fiction and film. She is currently drafting a romance novel set in a small midwestern town.