Title: The Cult of Romance
Author: Sarah Ayoub
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Publisher: HarperCollins Australia
Published: 4th May 2022
Synopsis: When your bestie is marrying a guy she barely knows, can you save her from the cult before it’s too late?
Natalie is living proof that love is a scam.
She’s traumatised by her parents’ failed marriage and overwhelmed by her grandmother’s expectations of good Lebanese girls — marriage, motherhood and exceptional tabouli-making skills.
When her best friend decides to get hitched to a guy in the motherland, Nat’s not exactly thrilled by the mammoth task before her: juggling cultural traditions, extra bridesmaid dresses and super-judgemental relatives.
And to top it off there’s the annoyingly good-looking best man and his constant need to mansplain all of the things.
Natalie is in for the trip of her life. But can she save her friend from the cult of romance, without falling in love herself?
At age nineteen, Lebanese-Australian teenager, Natalie Saab is convinced romance is a cult that people are indoctrinated into through movies about passive princesses, familial and cultural expectations, the patriarchy, and all sorts of other factors that she has experienced, from her parents failed marriage to her best friend’s sudden engagement and whirlwind wedding in Lebanon. And maybe she’s right – maybe we’ve all been sold a fantasy about romance. Yet Natalie is also coping with abandonment by her mother, and pressure from her father and grandmother to be a good Lebanese girl, yet she’s also grown up in modern Australia, exposed to modern ideas and different ways of doing things. She’s caught between two cultures, not sure where she fits. And then, her best friend, Janet, drops a bombshell: she’s getting married. And she’s willing to drop uni, travel, all her plans with Natalie for a man named Michael that she hardly knows. Natalie is convinced it is a mistake, and that Janet has been sucked into the cult of romance. But when Natalie meets the best man, George, she starts to feel judged again: judged for being too Australian and too modern, and not Lebanese enough. Not traditional enough. Yet there’s a sense that Natalie has something to learn about herself, about love, and about her identity and those around her – and also, there may even be more to her family’s story than she has been told.
Stories about characters caught in-between two cultures are always interesting and eye-opening. They give an insight into what it feels like to be caught between a very traditional culture and a very modern culture, both with their own expectations about what you know, what you do, and how you act with everyone. Through Natalie, readers can explore this situation as she explores ideas of love and identity between her home in Sydney, and a trip to Lebanon for Janet’s wedding. I liked that she was idealistic and had her strong beliefs – beliefs that she had developed over years due to her experiences of abandonment, love, and all the aforementioned expectations that she feels don’t make sense to her. I loved that she had a passion for her studies and baking business, and her strong, feminist attitude was a wonderful addition, because it acted as a delightful and thought-provoking foil and conflict with the traditions that she comes up against in Lebanon.
It is a story that I found navigated multiple worlds – the worlds of family, of culture, religion, nationality, romance – intersections that can occur anywhere, and are presented in a stark and colourful way here. I was intrigued by the differences, by the stories I did not know that helped me to understand the people living through what Natalie witnesses and comes to understand that there are many privileges she has that they may not, even if she feels trapped by her own circumstances – which I feel is a universal feeling. We can call feel trapped by our circumstances or things going on at times, yet it is the way they manifest in our lives, through our cultures that makes these experiences unique to us as a person, as Natalie finds out as she explores Lebanon with George and learns more about the country her ancestors and parents came from.
I loved the little nods to romantic comedies like My Best Friend’s Wedding – the two main guys in that movie and this book are George and Michael, and I loved that this George and Natalie wanted to thwart the wedding to some extent – neither of them were keen on it. Yet it was the growth they showed through their conversations as they worked to overcome misunderstandings that I loved, because I kept thinking thank goodness – for once, they are trying to talk it through and work out what makes them feel the way they do beyond what they say on the surface. It was refreshing to see characters do this, and I commend Sarah Ayoub for this.
The biggest thing I found coming through was the criss-cross of cultures, two different worlds, and the way they come together to present a specific experience – in this instance, the Lebanese-Australian experience (through Natalie’s eyes, of course), the migrant experience, and a desire to find out who you are. At first, it felt as though Natalie thought she could only be Australian. Or only be Lebanese. Yet I was thrilled that she was able to learn that she was both, and everything in between that she thought she was – that her identity could be determined by those factors and by what she wanted – that nobody could tell her who she was. I think she will be a very powerful character for young adult readers – or any reader – grappling with their identity, because at the end of the day, everything you experience, everything you know makes you who you are.
I loved being able to learn about another culture and the feelings of being caught in between two different cultures in a diverse, #OwnVoices novel – these stories are so powerful, and so important, and I think they bring something special to literature as they illustrate that the Australian experience is so varied, and that is what drew me to this book: the chance to learn something new.
And yes, there is a cult of romance – but there is a chance that it is so much more than what Natalie thinks it is – another powerful message for all readers.