Harmony, VA is a small rural town with a diverse population. There are the Sadarams who run the Naan Stop, the only authentic Indian restaurant in town. There is Oscar Murro, a first generation Filipino-American who runs the local sex shop, and his best friend Olli and her brother Bruce, a pair of first generation Barbados-Americans. For Kunal and Oscar, they have more in common than just being a first-generation American…they both also fall outside heteronormative romantic inclinations.
Kunal only discovers that Oscar is open to relationships with other men when the two of them randomly bump into one another at a gay bar situated well away from Harmony. While Kunal isn’t inexperienced in sex, his image of being gay has been tainted by an endless barrage of negative depictions that filled him with too much shame to even try researching his sexuality for himself. Kunal is therefore resigned to living a life without the kind of tender love shared by his parents and his married siblings. Not to mention the fact that he is convinced that coming out as gay would break is family’s collective heart.
Oscar, on the other hand, has been far luckier in the romance department. Despite a relatively conservative upbringing, his family has always been loving and supportive of him. Perhaps because of such an open and accepting upbringing, Oscar has grown into a confident, funny, loving man with the patience to show his partner what it means to be loved. And Oscar could certainly fall in love with an ernest, sincere man like Kunal. The trick, however, is getting Kunal to realize that two men most certainly can share the kind of fulfilling emotional connection as a straight couple.
When Oscar and Kunal finally get to spend some time in a casual setting, away from the prying eyes of Kunal’s family, they realize there is a real potential. Inspired by Kunal, Oscar creates charming, beautiful poetry. Set at ease by Oscar, Kunal learns to relax and enjoy the moment. As they learn more about one another on shared walks home and several group social events, there’s no denying Kunal and Oscar might be able to share something spectacular…if only Oscar can help Kunal realize he’s got to make those final steps and come out for his family’s sake, for their sake, and for his own sake.
Here is a charming story about two men who fall in love. There are no overwhelming machinations or diabolically evil characters. There are just sweet, slice-of-life events that show how these two men come together with a few personal touches to set it apart from other get-together stories.
Kunal and Oscar shine as individual characters and as a couple. Milano paints a great picture of Kunal as the ever-responsible eldest son in an Indian family. The level of detail felt well planned and researched. I like that there are constant references to Kunal’s home life—he works with his entire immediate family and they all live, if not in the same house, then within walking distance of each other. Being something of a foodie, the nods to Indian cuisine were fun, too. The diwali festival plays a big role in the story as well, bringing with it several days of celebration, which creates opportunities for Oscar and Kunal to meet up without being seen as “on a date” so Kunal can test the waters of his fledgling feelings.
The story is told in third person perspective, but we switch between Kunal and Oscar. This helps build a better insight into each man’s character. Still, Kunal’s family plays a much larger role in the story overall, while Oscar’s is entirely in absentia, supplanted on-page by his best friend Ollie and a few others. Nevertheless, both the Sadarams and Olli really help flesh out the main characters beyond their struggle to strike a balance between friendship and romance. The supporting characters also give us a better view of the MC outside of their connection to one another, something that I feel makes them all more rounded.
Over the course of the book, we watch as this big part of Kunal that is tied up in his entirely negative outlook on the life of a gay man slowly starts to transform thanks to his new-found friendship with Oscar, Olli, and the rest of their gang. This set up works well with the characters. Shy Kunal gets to keep face by saying he’s going out with friends when both he and Oscar know it’s a chance for them to date without actually dating. Plus, once the group activities are over, Oscar and Kunal get to spend time alone when they walk each other home. During these short vignettes, we see how Oscar’s wooing of Kunal affects them both, Oscar’s bombast attracting reserved Kunal like magnets.
I found this whole story to be very engaging, taking a familiar setting and filling it with distinctly different characters who find commonality in their not fitting the norm. The customs the Sadarams bring with them are included naturally in the story, so even though I am unfamiliar with the traditions of diwali, I still felt the import it had with the characters. The love story is just that, a love story. It’s built with care and deep attention to each of the main character’s personalities.