96 Words for Love dropped into my life at just the right moment. It was one of those books where it was the right time at the right place.
Ever since her acceptance to UCLA, 17-year-old Raya Liston has been quietly freaking out. She feels simultaneously lost and trapped by a future already mapped out for her.
Then her beloved grandmother dies, and Raya jumps at the chance to spend her last free summer at the ashram in India where her grandmother met and fell in love with her grandfather. Raya hopes to find her center and her true path. But she didn’t expect to fall in love… with a country of beautiful contradictions, her fiercely loyal cousin, a local girl with a passion for reading, and a boy who teaches her that in Sanskrit, there are 96 different ways to say the word “love.”
(Disclaimer: I received this free book from the publisher. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
Raya is about to start college and she has a moment of panic. Even though she chose English as her major, she doesn’t really know what she wants to do. With the death of her grandmother, Raya is set on a mysterious hunt. She becomes determined to spend her last free summer at the ashram where her grandmother left something special for her and her cousin.
Raya is at a crossroads in her life, battling what she thinks she ought to do, with what her heart tells her to do. She is struggling to figure out her future – with all these potential paths and choices Raya feels lost and un-moored. I am currently going through a similar dilemma in my own life, one that is exactly like Raya and her grandmother’s. So for me, this book came at the perfect time for me.
This story packs a punch. A modern re-telling of the story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta, 96 Words for Love is not only a love story, but a love story for yourself. It’s not only about the unexpected love you can find in hidden places, or the ways you heart learns to expand, it’s about figuring out what you want, and learning to live in the moment.
Growing up Raya feels out of place in the US as people try to figure out her ethnicity, but she feels similarly strange being in India. Through Raya we witness her awe of India, as well as her making sense of the complexities, as well as the dangers, of her family’s ancestral home. I really appreciated the ways the comments Raya endures mirrored some of my own experiences. At the same time, Raya examines her own privilege with access to education and feeling safe within her town.
In 96 Words for Love we are able to observe all these different people’s stories for why they have come to the ashram. Their own histories, goals, and stories. Through these side characters, Raya begins to examine her own ideas about her future, about herself, and what she values in life. We have this idea that something will make us happy, that it’s the next step, that sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of us.
Human Rights Issues
In 96 Words for Love the topic of sex trafficking is also brought up as it is a danger that exists today facing girls. Not only is Dash an advocate for this human rights issue, but it is developed in two ways throughout the book – a former victim, and one who is at risk. I just wanted to mention it as a content warning. I felt like it added depth to the story and a realistic angle that could have gotten lost in the romance otherwise. It also tied Raya’s own journey and Dash’s activism together.
There’s this conception of a plan, of striving for perfection, but it’s also important to live within the moment. To follow our heart. It’s a lesson I had to learn recently. As a teen I think I would have really liked Raya’s story. The re-telling aspect, Raya as a character, and her journey over all.