The Chai Factor is a beautiful contemporary romance with a message. It’s fun but not fluffy, engaging but not light. Amira and Duncan’s story isn’t unseen in romance - a girl from a traditional family falls for a guy outside of her culture - but Heron tells it in such a way that’s it’s new and refreshing.
This book gripped me and walked me along with its story, which deals with Amira trying to finish her graduate degree back at home at the same time a barbershop quartet has decided to move in. And of course, someone in the ensemble is a handsome stranger Amira met only hours beforehand. Duncan is a sweetie, a beta with his own internalized hangups, and not the guy Amira should like. They butt heads throughout the first half of the novel to the point you’ll be like “JUST KISS ALREADY.” The slow burn romance Heron writes is so good, and you won’t mind the build up at all.
The book isn’t all about Amira though. It’s also about her friend Reena, whose family life sucks. It’s about Sameer, Amira’s friend and a member of the barbershop quartet who isn’t out to his family. And it’s about Amira’s family itself, whose matriarch has very traditional viewpoints that are juxtaposed against Amira and her sister’s liberal ones. And it’s these side stories along with Amira’s that make this book so so good.
Many of the points in the book are particularly relevant today, and Heron deftly addresses things that I usually only see in contemporary YA novels done right. But one thing Heron nails is Amira’s divide between her culture and her home. Amira is Indian-Canadian - she lives in a traditional Muslim Indian household but has been raised in Toronto. Though she still identifies strongly with her family’s culture, it’s hard to adhere to all of it. It is an experience that many kids of immigrants feel. You’re never truly all in one bucket, which frustrates both sides. Amira isn’t a good Indian girl because she isn’t actively looking for a suitable Indian husband, Sameer isn’t a good Indian boy because he’s gay. And Amira isn’t “white” enough to avoid inane questions like “Where are you from?” and “If you’re Muslim, where’s your hijab?” Amira even internalizes a lot of this, which she explores throughout the book. Amira denies her attraction to Duncan because he isn’t that “good Indian boy” her grandmother wants for her, and she stays silent when people are interested in reporting on her experience at the Canada/U.S. border. It weirdly takes a barbershop quartet, her friends, and family for her to break out of her shell and start thinking critically of how she closes herself off. By the end, Amira realizes that the best way to fight hate is with love - hate from Canadians, hate from her Indian community, and hate from herself.
If you’re ready for a book with some difficult themes but a great love story, read this immediately. Also make sure you have some snacks and drinks nearby because, wow, did I drink a lot of chai while reading it.
Content Warnings: Xenophobia/Islamophobia, racial profiling, public and work harassment, academic anxiety, gaslighting, sexism, intercommunity racism and homophobia, eating disorder