FICTION: IT'S COMPLICATED

March 29, 2020

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‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ As cliché as that sounds, it is apt for Alisha Rai’s The Right Swipe. Although the title and cover give the impression of a fluffy read about romance and dating apps, the novel also highlights pertinent issues such as feminism, toxic workplace culture and, surprisingly, brain trauma.

37-year-old Rhi is the developer and CEO of the dating app Crush. But although her app, with 30 million subscribers, has successfully managed to bring many singles together, her own love life is a failure. She avoids forming permanent attachments because of Peter, a former flame/boss who victimises her at the end of their four-year relationship with a smear campaign that includes statements that Rhi is a gold-digger who slept her way up the corporate ladder

Grappling with severe trust issues now, Rhi decides that long-term relationships are a no-go; only no-strings-attached hook-ups are permitted. Then she meets Samson, a former National Football League (NFL) player, through her own app and throws her rule of no-second-dates out the window. Unfortunately, Samson does not show up the second time, leaving Rhi furious at having been ghosted. Rhi and Samson run into each other at a tech conference and here Samson gets a chance to tell his side of the story; he couldn’t come because his Uncle Joe died that same day. Samson was very close to Joe and the death left him numb. When he recovered, he couldn’t find Rhi again because she had unmatched him from her profile and he didn’t know her real name.

Samson learns that Rhi is on a mission to buy the old-time dating website Matchmaker and, in a bid to get close to her, proposes a marketing plan called “Win a Date with Samson Lima.” This involves creating a series of videos on how to navigate the world of online dating. The premise of the videos is that Samson is new to online dating — he actually is; he tried the app only once at the insistence of a friend and ended up matching with Rhi — so she will play the part of his expert advisor.

On the surface, The Right Swipe is centred on finding love in the modern world. However, it also explores how this new trend, vastly different from the traditional mode of people investing time to get to know each other, is changing the social landscape. The rise of online dating apps has given people access to more potential partners than they could meet at work or in their neighbourhood. On the downside, this has also made people very quick to judge. Knowing that another potential partner is just a swipe away prevents people from giving others a chance — as what happened when Rhi assumed Samson had ghosted her. Then there is that bigger question: short-term hook-ups versus longer, more permanent relationships? Are people prepared to give up one for the other?

A novel that seems like fluffy chick-lit about online dating has multiple layers

The subplots make the story a deeper read, as Rai underlines issues such as racism and bullying in schools, as well as workplace harassment and office cultures that are specifically toxic for women. Peter is a misogynist who uses his position of power to harass Rhi as well as his other female employees and, according to Rhi, such cultures are the cause of suppressing many brilliant minds and ending great careers. Society is sceptical of victims of harassment and Rai does a commendable job in portraying how Rhi remains silent for a long time because she thinks no one will believe her.

On a different note, the book also touches upon chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), mainly prevalent in football players and boxers. This condition is believed to be caused by repeated head injuries which result in brain trauma, concussion, loss of memory and, in severe cases, dementia. Samson’s father and beloved Uncle Joe were both NFL athletes; they began to suffer from depression, paranoia, extreme anger and forgetfulness because of CTE. Rai paints a heartbreaking picture of how strong, healthy men succumb to the despair and isolation caused by CTE, and how it affects their loved ones, when she writes about Samson’s friend Trevor, whose wife and son leave because they can no longer cope with his paranoia, rage and emotional instability. Rai also shows how the NFL does not like to discuss CTE because of the negativity it generates in the media and public.

Rai’s main characters are clearly tailored for a certain audience. Her heroine works in a chiefly male-dominated industry but, as a fiercely ambitious alpha female, she is strong enough to hold her own. Samson, the seemingly tough guy with a profession and name to match, is easy-going, charismatic, patient, loyal and thoughtful. Pretty much a perfect balance of everything a woman looks for. On top of his other qualities — and in stark contrast to Rhi’s vile ex Peter — Samson never imposes his opinions on Rhi and values her space.

The minor characters also play an instrumental role in the story’s development. Rhi’s mother, Sonya, works as a housekeeper and has raised her single-handedly, thus serving as a positive representation of single black mothers in America struggling to provide for their children. The female friendships are delightfully honest; Lakshmi and Katrina not only work with Rhi, but back her up with full support when she goes on national television to speak out against Peter.

The downside of the novel, though, is the abrupt end. The author does not give a proper closure to her main characters and leaves the book at a cliffhanger. Other than that, a few explicit scenes are a major put-off and, even though it is a romance, the chemistry between Rhi and Samson feels mostly focused on the physical. Overall, though, it’s a fun, mostly light-hearted novel with multi-layered narration.

The reviewer is a student of English literature, freelance writer, avid reader and blogger

The Right Swipe
By Alisha Rai
Piatkus, Little Brown Book Group, UK
ISBN: 978-0349424040
386pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 29th, 2020