If that all sounds a bit filmi, that’s because it is. From Twinkle, With Love (2018, Simon Pulse) is Sandhya Menon’s second novel for young adults. Menon is a self-described Bollywood enthusiast, and in her latest work, she leans into her love for the genre. Menon’s love of film is reflected in her protagonist, as well; Twinkle dreams of becoming a film director one day, and being a voice for women of color in the film industry. As such, the story is revealed via Twinkle’s diary entries, all of which are addressed to female directors she admires.
The book brings readers into a pivotal point of time in Twinkle’s life: a school festival has invited original submissions from students. Sahil Roy, somewhat geeky twin brother of Twinkle’s crush, encourages her to direct a gender-bent version of the classic film Dracula, with his help as a producer. Twinkle initially doubts her abilities behind the camera and worries that exposing her passion to the school may make her an object of ridicule. But with encouragement from Sahil and her other friends, she’s convinced to take on the project. Along the way, Twinkle receives guidance from her somewhat kooky, always sweet Dadi (maternal grandmother) as well as a hodgepodge of other classmates.
“Menon is a self-described Bollywood enthusiast, and in her latest work, she leans into her love for the genre.”
Menon’s story of teenage love, heartbreak, and ambition is not a particularly novel one. With Love, from Twinkle hits notes of love, friendship, and learning to believe in yourself upon which the whole YA genre is built. However, Menon improves upon the genre in a few notable ways.
First, as with her previous novel, most of the novel’s protagonists are of color. Furthermore, Menon makes it clear that Twinkle’s family is not one of means. Compared to the Tanaka family or the Roy family, the Mehras live on a fairly modest budget.
Although none of her friends ever mention their differences in lifestyle, Twinkle’s working-class status is a source of stress for her. Media aimed at young adults doesn’t often include discussions of class and finances, so Menon’s inclusivity is part of a relative step forward for youth literature.
Menon’s plot is classic, and her characters are fresh and boundary-pushing, but the execution of those ideas sometimes misses the mark. It’s clear Menon wants a diverse cast of characters; however, details about some of the students seem to be included somewhat awkwardly. Case in point: in a small story arc that seems to come from nowhere and is resolved as quickly as it is introduced, one of Sahil’s friends is revealed to be black and gay in a manner so casual, it’s hard not to feel like the character only exists to tick boxes.
“Although none of her friends ever mention their differences in lifestyle, Twinkle’s working-class status is a source of stress for her.”
Also, strangely, a sort of false dichotomy between Indian manners and white manners is introduced; when Twinkle goes to the Roy household for breakfast, she greets Sahil and Neil’s parents as “Aunty” and “Uncle.” Sahil’s father, who is Indian, makes a comment to Sahil’s mother, who is white, about Indian kids having good manners, thus further “othering” Twinkle for her heritage.
Furthermore, some of the characters seem to be fleshed out using stereotypes. Maddie Tanaka, Twinkle’s best friend, is introduced as Japanese-American; she is also introduced as a ridiculously driven, academics-oriented student who already knows what kind of doctor she wants to be. Brij Nath, another Indian-American supporting character, is described as a computer genius. Unfortunately, though the main characters in the novel may not embody Asian-American stereotypes, the supporting characters seem not to have escaped that fate.
Perhaps equally disconcerting is Menon’s depiction of one of Twinkle’s acquaintances, Victoria, as a Jersey girl — although she is kind and supports Twinkle in her vision, she isn’t given much personality beyond her big hair, loud voice, and prowess with hair and makeup styling.
Another somewhat confusing aspect of the story is Twinkle’s relationship with her parents. Menon mentions often that Twinkle’s caregiver and confidante is largely her Dadi; a caring, if unusual character. Twinkle notes that her father works as a youth counselor and his demanding hours leave little time for the family; however, her mother’s situation is less clear. Slowly, it is revealed that Twinkle’s mother suffers from what is probably a deep bout of depression since the death of her own mother — something that leaves Mrs. Mehra incapable of caring for Twinkle.
“…Menon has included grief, and depression, as topics in the novel; these experiences are tough to explore in youth fiction…”
It is no small feat that Menon has included grief, and depression, as topics in the novel; these experiences are tough to explore in youth fiction, and even less explored in youth fiction dealing with characters of color. However, while the depression and grief story arc starts off strong, it remains shallow and is tied up so neatly that it almost undermines the pain the reader is meant to feel on Twinkle’s behalf.
Twinkle’s growing dissatisfaction with her mother’s emotional absence culminates in a huge argument between the two, in the wake of which, Twinkle’s mother explains to her daughter the impact that grief has had on her. While the conversation is realistic and touching, the sixteen year old protagonist’s reaction is not; Twinkle seems to accept this explanation from her mother without exploring the negative impact it has had on her developing adulthood, and, in the end, when Twinkle’s mother shows up to her movie screening — something Twinkle did not expect her to do — the story seems neatly resolved, Bollywood style.
Except grief, family strife, and mental health issues are not resolved Bollywood style. In trying to create a storyline that is both filmi and heavy hitting, somehow both aims are undercut. This makes the story arc between Twinkle and her parents somewhat awkward, and leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable and unsatisfied.
Considering the veritable dearth of youth novels featuring characters of color — particularly Desi-American characters; With Love, from Twinkle presents a refreshing point of view. Furthermore, it dares to tackle topics — mental health, class — that need much more discussion in youth literature. However, although the intention is good, the execution of some of these discussions misses the mark. Still, With Love, From Twinkle is worth considering if in need of a fast, fun, and light read that also touches on important issues.
* * *
Rashmi Venkatesh is a pharmacologist who now works behind a desk and lives in the Metro D.C. area. Her interests include feminism, pop science, South Asian diasporic culture and media, and biryani. Find her on Twitter at @rashmiv11.