Alisha Rai’s Girl Gone Viral is sweet take on love and mental health

Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai. Image Courtesy HarperCollins
Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai. Image Courtesy HarperCollins /

Alisha Rai’s hotly anticipated second entry into her Modern Love series, Girl Gone Viral, is a sweet story with a side of mental health exploration.

If you’ve ever read an Alisha Rai novel then you know she is the queen of mixing hotness with complexity. In Girl Gone Viral, hotness takes a backseat to sweetness, but the complexity is firmly in place as a central piece of Katrina King and Jasvinder Singh’s road to Happily Ever After. Both romantic leads deal with a form of mental illness. For Katrina, it’s a panic disorder and the anxiety issues that come with it; for Jasvinder, it’s PTSD. Both disorders inform how these two navigate life, love, and everything in between.

Girl Gone Viral starts slowly. Its meandering pace is the setup for how Katrina moves through her life as someone who is just beginning to step back into the world. She spent years moving no further than her own residence and grounds, so every step she takes, every new place she visits,  and new interaction is a hard-won moment for her. As is being open to finding love.

Katrina is a hopeless romantic, but romance has never been a part of her life. Love, for her, has been focused on her chosen family — the people who support her and who she supports in her own way, whether it’s by investing in their companies, giving them a safe and loving place to live, or cooking for them. Katrina is a kitchen goddess, and she doles out food on a schedule and with an efficiency that Jasvinder finds comforting and reliable.

Routine is how Katrina and Jasvinder manage their mental health. Their set activities help them to orient themselves in the world and control their responses to unexpected events. Love, however, doesn’t stick to a timetable or wait until it’s convenient to make an appearance. The same thing can be said for anything that goes viral on the internet. Katrina, unfortunately, learns this the hard way when an innocent encounter with a man interested in her becomes the kind of social media fodder that has the web abuzz.

The invasion of her privacy and uncomfortable speculation on who she is and whether she and #CafeBae are together sends Katrina into an anxiety spiral. Rai’s depiction of anxiety-induced hyper-fixation triggered by an event outside of Katrina’s control is one of the best parts of Girl Gone Viral. Her handling of the intricacies of anxiety — from the panic attacks, to the obsessive tendencies, to the inability to concentrate, to the rambling and intense need to escape — really grounded the book in reality when it comes to living with and managing a mental illness.

And it’s Rai’s treatment of Katrina’s panic disorder that makes me wish more was explored with Jasvinder’s PTSD. He has nightmares, an aversion to crowds and loud sounds, and is hypervigilant when it comes to security. The latter bit helps him excel at his job as a bodyguard and head of security for Katrina. Jasvinder’s PTSD is a product of an incident in a war zone that resulted in him getting shot while trying to stop a fellow soldier from killing a civilian. His military history is intriguing to a point, but his anxiety over the upcoming pardon for the soldier he’d testified against doesn’t add much to the story.

It’s Jasvinder’s social anxiety that seems to fit the plot better, especially in relation to his family and his distance from them due to his inability to express his own struggles with mental health. Unlike Katrina, Jasvinder isn’t estranged from his family, but for years he’s placed a wall between them and him emotionally. It’s the same wall that he had been putting between himself and Katrina until the viral incident forces a change for them both.

Jasvinder whisking Katrina away to his family’s farm opens the door for a possibility for a future between the two. It’s one that they both sink into nervously but wholeheartedly. They’re sweet together. They check in with each other’s wants and desires, and their near decade long relationship helps them make the transition from Jasvinder being Katrina’s protector to him learning how to be her partner as she learns more about him.

Girl Gone Viral is heavily introspective. The stakes in the book are primarily internal and centered on working through past personal hang-ups and fears in order to grow closer to other people. As such, the external forces at work in the book like the viral “meet-cute” love story, the impending pardon of the soldier that shot Jasvinder, the possibility of Jasvinder’s grandfather disowning him, and Katrina’s father attempting to extort her for money don’t quite feel like they have much weight.

Every time the story expanded on Katrina’s home life as a child and her father’s controlling behavior or Jasvinder’s difficulty allowing people into his life and cultivating friendships, the narrative soared. Any time the narrative veered toward the actual plot of Girl Gone Viral, it felt like it dragged to make room for plot elements that were less about Katrina and Jasvinder and more about the world around them. Despite this, the book is a good exploration of mental health, emotional boundaries, and allowing yourself to love and be loved by the people in your life.

If there’s anything to take from Girl Gone Viral, it is that happiness is a radical act. Claiming your happiness and letting others into your joy is a defiance against anything and anyone that tries to steal the best parts of life from you. That’s essentially the message Rai comes back to in her books, and it’s a message worthy of even more stories with characters who shape happiness and what that looks like to fit who they are and who they love.

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Girl Gone Viral is available now in print, audio, e-format.