Romance novelist Sonali Dev writes exhilarating, thought-provoking “books with a Bollywood beat”—ones our critics routinely reward with starred reviews and spots on our “Best Books” year-end lists.
“Another beautiful, breathtaking novel from a not-to-be-missed author,” Kirkus writes of her latest, A Distant Heart, a sexy page-turner set in a suburb of Mumbai. Chronicling the romance between Kimi Patil and Rahul Savant, who’ve run afoul of a fearsome mobster, A Distant Heart explores dichotomies of freedom and captivity, bravery and cowardice, selfishness and selflessness, privilege and hardship, in a narrative as exhilarating as a motorcycle ride through Maharashtra.
Dev is the author of A Change of Heart, The Bollywood Bride, and A Bollywood Affair. Born and raised in Bandra, in West Mumbai, Dev lives with her family in the suburbs of Chicago. (This interview has been edited and condensed. —M.L.)
A Distant Heart is, in large part, the love story of childhood friends Kimi and Rahul. Would you please introduce our readers to these characters and their relationship to one another?
A Distant Heart is the story of Kimi, a girl who is confined to a sterile room in her mansion in Mumbai for twelve years because of a rare illness, and Rahul, a servant in her house who ends up befriending her and becoming her eyes to the outside world until a heart transplant sets her free. The book is set in two timelines—their childhood friendship and their present-day estrangement, when an underworld crime lord, who runs an organ black market, is chasing her down and Rahul, now a cop, is trying to protect her.
A Distant Heart is your first novel to take place primarily in India. What were the pleasures of setting this novel in greater Mumbai?
A Distant Heart isn’t just set in India, it’s set in this suburb of Mumbai called Bandra, where I spent a large part of my own childhood. Bandra has this entirely unique charm and character, I can only describe it as an inexplicably wide open heart that’s almost a micro-reflection of the spirit of the rest of India. It houses everything from barely functional slums to wildly ostentatious mansions, and communities that embody everything from the oldest traditions to progressive new ideologies, and everything in between. For me, personally, Bandra was where I made my first friendships and dreamed my first dreams, so it was the greatest joy to relive that while writing this book. I even thank the place in my Acknowledgements in the book, because I am so in love with it and so grateful to its shaded lanes and rocky beaches for affording me such a vibrant canvas first for my life and now for my story.
Kimi is bright, capable, bold, vivacious, and born with a rare, life-threatening condition that confines her to her room for many years. The expectations her parents (and even Rahul) have for her are circumscribed by this illness—but not the expectations she has for herself. What was it like to explore a woman’s agency through this character?
One of the ways I describe this book is that it’s a modern retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, which I think is an allegory for locking girls up in ivory towers. To me, the soul of A Distant Heart is that very taking-back of agency. In all of society’s micro-messaging, girls are told that they require protection, that their ‘preciousness’ is proven when someone takes care of them. Somewhere in there is the message that they are incapable of taking care of themselves. Kimi’s illness is definitely a tangible form given to this helplessness, and the overtness of the attention and protection it gets her comes with loss of control. Decisions are made for her and for complicated reasons she is unable to wrestle control from those who love her. In the end, the story is about drawing lines and defining what rights someone has over you under the guise of love. How far is too far and who gets to decide that.
Kimi freely asks for the love she wants; Rahul purposefully limits his desires. What are the reasons for his self-denial?
Rahul and Kimi have both had to deal with circumstances they have no control over. But from a very young age, Rahul has agency in ways that Kimi doesn’t. This is a two-sided coin. His having agency comes with weighty responsibilities. The way he deals with the weight he carries is through self-denial, because he believes he can only deal with pain by avoiding it entirely. He believes that he doesn’t have the luxury to indulge in things that will cause pain, so he makes them unavailable to himself. Love is one of those things.
Are there lessons you learned from writing the previous books that allowed you to push your craft further in A Distant Heart?
When people ask me which of my books they should start with, I always tell them it depends on what kind of story appeals to them. If you like traditional romantic comedies you should read A Bollywood Affair; if you enjoy intense love stories with angsty internal journeys then The Bollywood Bride is for you; and if you enjoy dark gritty stories with crime and suspense, then start with A Change Of Heart. A Distant Heart is a little bit of all those. The tone is lighter, but the internal journeys are angsty and there’s a strong crime plot. In those terms, I think I brought my experience from having written the others to it. But in the end, each story has its natural soul and I can only hope that I’m learning to tell it better and better.
If “every novel is the answer to a question,” what question or questions might A Distant Heart answer?
On the surface it is: How far will you go for love? But really it is: How far should you go for love?
What is the best compliment a reader could pay you?
That I made them feel, that I made them pull out an old hurt and helped heal it a little bit.
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews and is the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.