CW: The story includes discussion of past experiences of child abuse, attempted murder, and kidnapping.
Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai is full up with tropes that I’m sure are a lot of people’s favs—there’s a romance between a bodyguard and the woman he’s hired to protect! Forced proximity! Cute stray dog! Former soldier struggling to manage his PTSD! A marriage of convenience! Friends to lovers! Small town! Millionaire former celebrity looking to live a good, quiet life! But, it ultimately didn’t really work for me. While I was happy to be able to read an interracial romance between two people of color, one of whom clearly has had his background deeply researched, I struggled with the sheer number of plot points within the story. Both characters had conflicts that, while they spanned the entirety of the narrative, were never really resolved to my satisfaction and I walked away from the novel with this niggling sense of incompleteness that overshadowed a lot of the great things about the story.
Girl Gone Viral is the second book in Alisha Rai’s Modern Love series and follows Katrina, best friend, roomie, and angel investor to Rhiannon and her app in The Right Swipe, and Katrina’s bodyguard Jasvinder. Katrina is a former model who married an extremely wealthy and much older man in her mid-twenties as a means to escape the control of her terrible, abusive father. Her husband cared for her deeply, but it was nothing more than a modern day marriage of convenience that, unlike my very favorite stories of marriages of convenience, never blossomed into a romance. At the beginning of the story, Katrina’s husband has been deceased for six years. While not related by blood, Jas was considered to be a nephew by Katrina’s husband and was hired by him after he left the Army. Jas became a bodyguard after a truly horrifying incident in the military where Jas was shot by a fellow soldier for trying to stop him from murdering a civilian, which, unsurprisingly, is not something he has fully come to terms with.
The central problem for me is that both Katrina and Jas are struggling with three different conflicts each–separate familial issues; separate conflicts equally grounded in the way people of color are easily dehumanized by others; and then, of course, the question of whether they will fall in love. It’s a lot of story to balance and ultimately the narrative feels shallower and less vivid because of how much must be addressed.
Obviously, how the romance shakes out is unsurprising. Yes, they do fall in love. Honestly, there isn’t even a ton of conflict associated with the romance. From the beginning, both people are conscious of the fact that they have feelings for each other, but they refuse to tell the other person about it and spend much of their internal dialogue slapping themselves on the wrist for feeling any type of physical attraction. The romance is definitely closer to a slow burn. The first half of the novel is overwhelmingly filled with interactions between Jas and Katrina that are just chock full of denied and subsumed longing. Katrina is hilariously full on obsessed with Jas’ eyebrows:
“He’d been in her life for so long; she’d always been objectively aware of his beauty. She’d only recently started taking it personally, tracing his bold features repeatedly with her gaze. She’d become especially obsessed with his eyebrows. They were slashing and black and thick and prominent, and she didn’t understand why her sexual awakening was tied to a man’s eyebrows of all things, but here she was.”
But also they barely touch. Once they decide to be adults and use their words (and after they are forced to share a small farmhouse together!), they move slowly towards developing a relationship with physical and emotional intimacy.
Moving from conflict arising out of their relationship, to conflicts coming out of the outside world is where we get the title Girl Gone Viral. Katrina has spent much of the last decade trying to contend with her anxiety and panic attacks. She finds the outside world filled with overwhelming and indescribable danger, and at this point, whomst among us can’t identify with that? Katrina is deep into therapy, trying to slowly broaden her engagement with the world, and one day decides to grab some coffee at a little spot that is one of the few public spaces that she feels safe. It turns out to be a crowded day at the coffee shop and a stranger asks if he can share a table with her. Her brief encounter and polite conversation with the stranger is live tweeted by another person in the cafe and a mostly fictional story about a meet cute quickly goes viral. As the story develops, we see the woman who live tweeted and embellished this interaction conspire with the man Katrina was talking to. They both see opportunity in the viral tweet storm and decide to keep up the lies by telling the world that Katrina and the stranger have stayed in touch and started dating. While Katrina’s face is mostly hidden in the pictures shared with the world, she is concerned that this nonconsensual stripping of her anonymity will allow her horrible father to find her or, because she was once famous and is wealthy, lead her to be kidnapped and held hostage, both of which happened to her previously during her marriage.
Jas on the other hand, continues to be in daily pain as a result of being shot. After all that violence, his attacker was court-martialed and sentenced to twenty years. He was paroled after serving five and Jas learns at the beginning of the story that because of his attacker’s proximity to power—he’s an “apple-cheeked Midwestern boy, the son of a prominent prosecutor and a judge”—he will likely be fully pardoned for his violent actions, sending Jas into a tightly controlled, extremely internalized spiral of fear. Much like Katrina, he worries about being pulled out of his chosen life of anonymity to have his testimony dismissed and his motives questioned. He worries what it means that the pain and suffering he has experienced, that the explicitly intentional and now seemingly state-sponsored violence he witnessed and tried to stop, is so easily dismissed and forgotten. Which is SO MANY feelings for any person to be walking around with and it’s barely addressed.
Every once in a while Jas gets a call reminding him that this terrible dude is about to get pardoned, and he gets extra anxious about it. But Jas never gets even a modicum of power as the story progresses. It’s basically like his phone is sending him the most annoying and disempowering of notifications—DING the criminal justice system is set up to protect those with access to power DING society is never interested in protecting victims of color where the perpetrator is white DING your humanity can be stripped away from you if someone finds your existence and your pain inconvenient.
Which, I mean, made this love story kinda a bummer, you know? It was hard to relax into a story that doesn’t prevent its characters from the worst kind of exploitation and dehumanization. Jas’ trauma isn’t resolved, while Katrina’s anxiety-inducing virality is, and through very simple means.Katrina resolves her viral moment by
…essentially just writing a nice letter to the internet asking them to leave her alone and the internet agrees! There is no punishment for the women who initially tweeted and was rewarded with hundreds of thousands of followers, a book deal, and endorsement offers. Katrina doesn’t even get to tell off the dude that invented a romance between them for likes. It’s not unnecessarily unrealistic that those folks face no penalties, but I could have gone for a little bit more justice or vengeance!
The reason why the book is B- is that, while it felt unresolved to me, it’s both funny and insightful. I loved the handling of Katrina’s panic attacks and her anxiety. The tools that she deploys to manage her mental health are real and reflect the best practices currently espoused to help people with the type of struggles that Katrina has:
“Having a panic disorder meant she could have a panic attack at any time. Sometimes anxiety or her PTSD triggered it. Sometimes she couldn’t tell exactly what pushed her body into it. Between years of therapy and meds, she’d learned how to occasionally catch a warning sign.
Katrina often felt like she had a perpetual scanner checking her vital signs. Heart rate, breathing, headache, adrenaline surges. It ran in the background like a sleeping computer program.”
Similarly, Jas’ background is clearly deeply researched. He comes from a Northern California farming community filled with Sikh Punjabis, which exists in real life and reflects a historical pattern of migration that has created a sizable Sikh community who are central to the agricultural history and culture of California. I do love a story that pushes back against normative narratives of Americana, immigrants, and their contributions at large!
The story is also really funny at times! Katrina’s internal monologue is a hoot:
“Oh, you’re a tourist.” Her shoulders lowered, some of the pressure relieved. Meet-cutes don’t happen when someone was on vacation.
Her inner romantic, that bitch, squinted at her, and quickly filled her brain with the fifty-seven and a half romantic comedies that started exactly that way.”
“The place looked like it had been ripped from another time, with old wood-paneled walls and sturdy furniture hand-carved out of oak. The blue and white quilt she was tangled up in was clean, but deeply loved, the fabric worn.
Holy Laura Ingalls Wilder, where am I?”
While there were absolutely pieces of the story I enjoyed, Girl Gone Viral’s plot-heavy narrative, unresolved conflict, and bummer-rific story arcs made this a romance that did not resonate as deeply with me as the first book in the series. It’s not a light romance and it does not resolve neatly, so if that is what you need right now, I would hold off reading until your world is in a better place. But, if you can handle some angst, some systemic oppression, and a distinct lack of totally justified vengeance, check out this slow burn romance between two damaged, but kind people of color who desire only each other and the safety of anonymity.