When Sonali Dev was a child growing up in Mumbai, her father would tuck her in at night and, like so many parents, offer to tell her a story. “I was like, ‘No, Papa. Can I tell you a story?’ ” she recounts via Zoom, seated in front of a row of bookshelves at her home in Naperville, Ill., a day after returning from a weeklong writer’s retreat in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. “Somehow I had to always be expressing my opinion. A piece of paper and pencil was the best way to do that always. I think I might have written before I read, simply because I love telling stories.”
Dev, known for her Bollywood series (including A Bollywood Affair and A Distant Heart) and her Rajes series (Bollywood–Jane Austen mash-ups including Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors and The Emma Project), will release her ninth novel, The Vibrant Years, in December as the first offering from Mindy’s Book Studio, Mindy Kaling’s imprint with Amazon. In the novel, Dev turns her romantic-comedic eye to three generations of women, weaving their stories together in a novel that addresses the bonds of family, life-altering love, finding the agency to fight for one’s dreams, and realizing and expressing one’s true self.
The star of The Vibrant Years is 65-year-old Bindu Desai, who, in the novel’s propulsive first sentence, receives a million dollars “without so much as a warning and no way to give it back, no matter how much you wanted to.” She uses the money to move to a nearby fancy retirement community in Florida, leaving the home she’s shared with her daughter-in-law, Aly. (Bindu had stayed with Aly even after her and Bindu’s son’s divorce.)
Aly, meanwhile, has her own challenges. She works at a TV news station and dreams of anchoring a weekend segment but, for 10 years, has been relegated to “spot reporting on diversity stories.”
Then there’s Cullie, Aly’s daughter (and Bindu’s granddaughter), a 20-year-old genius app developer who pitches a dating app, and then realizes she needs field experience in order to create it. Maybe her mother and grandmother can help? (It’s easy to picture the movie, and, as luck would have it, Amazon Studios has first-look rights to adapt the material to film, though Dev says she is not at liberty to discuss that.)
The stories Dev grew up on ranged from Indian mythology to British classics with “almost no female protagonists who ever got what they wanted,” she says. “That’s my whole tie-in to Jane Austen and why she was so important.”
When she got a bit older, Dev filched Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins novels from her mom. She was also a huge film buff, especially loving the Bollywood films of the time, which were “about nothing but hope and love winning,” she says. She adds that she was a fan of “very serious, gritty cinema.” She wanted her own stories to have everything: “The Sidney Sheldon, Jackie Collins, Jeffrey Archer drama characterizations. The exploding romantic emotion that almost pushes the melodrama envelope that Bollywood films had, but also, the grit of real stories—what is beautiful about life, and how it exists even in the ugliest circumstances.”
For much of her life, Dev didn’t think she’d be a novelist; her dream job was to write a culture column for the New York Times. But her best friend was a Bollywood movie producer who, lamenting the lack of good material, recruited Dev to write something for her. The screenwriter career didn’t pan out, but when she realized that her stories could be told in book form, she knew she wanted to write novels.
Dev, who’d moved with her husband to the Chicago area, enrolled in creative writing classes at the University of Chicago. She finished “literally a word-vomit first draft” of The Bollywood Bride in April 2010 and started shopping it in 2011. Though it was rejected “over and over and over and over,” she kept going. “I kept fixing it, but I also jumped on my next book and wrote that,” she says. In 2013 she sold both novels to Kensington, with her second, A Bollywood Affair, coming out as her debut in 2014.
In the years that followed Dev published seven more novels, and the industry embarked on some massive shifts. “When I started, there was no market,” she says. “There was no shelf space for me; there were no comps. The world has completely changed this past decade from a place where an editor could look you straight in the eyes, without being a bad person or meaning ill, and tell you, ‘We cannot sell a book that has two Indian characters in it,’ to a place where, absolutely, without a doubt, that editor would lose her job for doing that.”
This doesn’t mean the industry doesn’t have further to go. “There are still people who will look you in the face and say, ‘Oh, of course, you’re going to get everything because now all anyone wants is diversity,’ ” she notes. “Yet, when you look at the numbers, it is a laughable thing. When I’m comping myself with white authors, the comp shouldn’t be completely negated because Indian culture is involved. That’s the thing that I think is changing. Today I have a lot of comps that are Indian, that are Black, that are Asian, and that are white. Of the subtle, important changes, I think that is one: that we are not being shelved separately.”
In all four books of her Bollywood series, Dev explores how women can grow into themselves given that sexuality doesn’t die even as women become “invisible” with middle age. “In two days I turn 50,” she says. “When you hit middle age, you actually start to understand what that means, because we are, up until that point, identified so much as our bodies. And yet age does not dictate what you can and cannot do sexually and relationship-wise.”
All this is a part of The Vibrant Years, which Dev describes as “a feminine power story,” spun from the idea of three generations being on the dating scene at the exact same time. “That seed had been in my head for, I think, five years—it was sitting there ripe for it to happen,” says Dev, who has been married for 26 years and has two children in their 20s.
“I have very dear single friends,” she adds. “Man, the dating scene...” She sighs. “The tightrope walk between personal freedom and social expectations is a walk that every woman I know, regardless of age, and color, and culture, goes through. Wanting love and wanting to be able to do with your life what you want to do. It’s the most basic of things.”
Despite a seeming cultural preoccupation with being unhappy—“We are pulled up if we’re happy as being delusional, or full of ourselves, or arrogant”—Dev considers it one of her greatest gifts to be a happy person. “Whatever happiness I have in my life today, I’m incredibly grateful for it,” she says. By telling stories in which happiness wins (“and the exact details of the steps that one needs to take, or needs to be comfortable with,” for that to happen), she puts forth a life path that can also lead to something joyful for others. Along the way, she’s forging her own authentic life path—and her own happiness—as well. “It is not a path without bumps,” she says. “But to accept yourself wholly is the true journey.”
Jen Doll is the author of the YA novels Unclaimed Baggage and That’s Debatable.