Falling in Love at the Food Packing Convention: Lavash at First Sight by Taleen Voskuni

Lavash at First Sight cover

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I enjoyed Sorry, Bro, Taleen Voskuni’s first novel: the main character breaks up with a non-Armenian tech bro, falls in love with an Armenian woman, and struggles with her identity as a bisexual woman. What’s not to like? I also appreciated the opportunity to learn about Armenian culture and the Bay Area Armenian diaspora.

Unfortunately, Lavash at First Sight is not as good as Sorry, Bro for one simple reason: it is too short. I am actually not bothered by the fact that the plot follows the same sequence described in the previous paragraph. What I don’t think works is that the novel reads like an extended Before Sunrise/Roman Holiday situation in which the girl has to leave home to find love on vacation. 

Of course, it isn’t really a vacation–Nazeli works for a Bay Area tech company, after all. (Yes, using PTO, but still having to do work is gross, and no one should do it.) The bulk of the novel takes place at PakCon, a food packaging convention for vendors and distributors. If that doesn’t sound very Jesse and Celine, that’s because it isn’t. In between scenes at PakCon, which features an old family rivalry (yes, there’s also some Montague and Capulet action in Lavash), Nazeli and Vanya tour some of Chicago’s sights while they get to know each other. To review, there are the plot beats of Sorry, Bro, PakCon and the reality-esque competition that occurs there, family rivalry, and a Roman Chicago holiday. As I said, Lavash at First Sight needs to be longer in order to support everything Voskuni wants to include.

Two quick asides:

1) If you like your novels on the shorter side, I understand; however, you’re not often going to see me suggest than an author cut/edit. Just write more stuff for me to read!

2) It is actually kind of a Roman holiday because there is a scene set in a Roman bath. No, really, there is.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that Before Sunrise and Roman Holiday don’t have HEAs. (They don’t, and I will not be taking questions.) The plot structure of those films won’t work in a romance novel if the expectation is an HEA. It seems like Voskuni knows this and inserts the family rivalry and the competition at the food convention to give the story a place to go, but those elements belie the breeziness of Nazeli and Vanya’s budding relationship. And while we’re on the subject of too much going in too little of a page count, here seems like a good point to bring up the fact that Lavash at First Sight is a fade to black romance. 

To me, none of these elements go together. Again, I think more time was needed to knit everything together in the most successful way. I liked the story, and I would have liked it better if it had time to breathe.

One thing that I really appreciated about Lavash, however, is the way that Voskuni deals with cell phones. There are text message conversations in almost every book that I’ve read this year, so my reaction to what Voskuni does definitely merits notice. Okay, now I know how this is going to sound, but hear me out: I miss long phone calls. I’m talking about the phone calls that go on for so long that you actually run out of things to say and someone falls asleep. It’s not like cell phones and texting replaced those—if anything, emails and instant messaging did. Plus, you can still call someone on a cell phone, and you don’t even have to worry about phone cords anymore.

What I’m trying to say is that I learned what “dry texting” was a couple of months ago. I mean, I already knew what it was; I just didn’t know that there was a name for it. This will come as a surprise to no one, but I don’t usually write short texts. If I send a short text, I can guarantee that something has been edited out (probably either an aside that begins with the word “also” or has parentheses around it). And, sure, in terms of texting, some people can do a lot with a little. Within the first few chapters of Lavash, we’ve seen multiple exchanges between Nazeli and the tech bro. Not a spoiler alert: he’s not one of those people. Nazeli’s first text to Vanya, on the other hand: quality flirt. 

The cell phone thing is a relatively small detail, but that small detail drew me in. In a genre that is well-known for its conventions and tropes, the small details are often what make us remember a novel or an author. If it isn’t completely clear by now, I wanted more from Lavash at First Sight. That said, I still recommend it, and I will happily read whatever Voskuni writes next.

Liv (she/her) is a trans woman, a professor of English, and a reluctant Southerner. Described (charitably) as passionate and strong-willed, she loves to talk (and talk) about popular culture, queer theory, utopias, time travel, and any other topic that she has magpied over the years. You can find her on storygraph and letterboxd @livvalentine.

A Bisexual Armenian American Self Discovery Story: Sorry, Bro by Taleen Voskuni

the cover of Sorry, Bro

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Armenian culture and self discovery are primary themes in Sorry, Bro by Taleen Voskuni. These themes are the strengths of the book, especially when it comes to culturally sensitive issues and heavier topics like genocide, racism, homophobia within the Armenian community. On the other hand, Sorry, Bro also has one of the most extremely infuriating main characters I have ever encountered in a sapphic romance. It’s less of a romcom and more of a journey of self discovery, where our main character takes one step forward and three steps back. It reads a little like a YA book at times, despite having a main character in her late 20s, as Nareh’s development into adulthood feels like it went off track when her father died. She still lives in her childhood bedroom with her high school posters tacked to the wall and a curfew. Nareh is heavily invested in how people in her community and family perceive her, needing their praise and acceptance, even though she’s not really involved herself in the community and feels disconnected from it.  

One of the main issues for me comes at the beginning, when, not 48 hours after her boyfriend of almost five years proposes and she subsequently turns him down, Nareh announces she’s on the prowl for a new fella. No mourning period, no me-time, it’s just time to go to the Man Store and get something in a size handsome-with-a-sharp-jawline. Nareh is bisexual, but aside from her male friends, she doesn’t seem to really like the men that she thinks are “her type.” She approaches potentially dating them in a very detached way, not unlike her mother, who’s been making Nareh spreadsheets of eligible Armenian bachelors. This goes on for a couple of chapters longer than I had patience for, to be honest. A lot of these qualities make Nareh feel quite shallow. 

Nareh is solidly in the closet, afraid of the fallout from her community should she come out as bi, and also perhaps wary after making out with too many straight girls in college and getting burned. But no matter how hard she tries to focus on finding a Armenian husband, she keeps getting distracted by her new, very attractive friend Erebuni, who it turns out is *not* straight. Like the book, it takes a while to get to our secondary character. Erebuni is the polar opposite of Nareh—she’s confident, doesn’t care what people think of her, and has a tight knit group of Armenian friends. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much time on the page, and if she does, it seems she is always surrounded by other people. Erebuni never really feels like a main character, more of a prop for Nareh. 

As a romance, Sorry, Bro has some room for improvement. But as a book about self-discovery and finding one’s place in the world in the context of culture, community, and societal pressure, it’s worth a read.  

Susannah reviews Sorry, Bro by Taleen Voskuni

the cover of Sorry, Bro

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Taleen Voskuni’s promising sapphic debut packs more than your average meet-cute romance. Sorry, Bro follows an Armenian American woman’s quest to balance familial duty, identity, career aspirations, and, of course, love.

Nareh, a TV journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area, presents a polished persona on Instagram, but lacks self-assurance behind the scenes. She has not fully embraced her bisexuality, which she keeps a secret from her family, nor does she feel like a “real” Armenian with roots to her culture. Nareh’s identity crisis extends to her professional life. Constantly accepting the fluff assignments that her sexist, bigoted boss dumps on her, she holds her own journalistic talent in low esteem.

But when Trevor, her non-Armenian boyfriend of four years, pops the question in a crowded bar amid his tech bro buddies, Nareh has a moment of clarity. She no longer fits the mold that she’s created for herself. With Trevor leaving for a three-week business trip, Nareh asks for some space to reconsider their future.

Her mother has other plans for her. Armed with a spreadsheet of eligible Armenian bachelors, she urges Nareh to attend Explore Armenia, a weeks-long cultural convention that doubles as a singles meetup for Armenian American millennials across the Bay Area. A dutiful daughter, Nareh pep talks herself into showing up at the festivities, but no men strike her fancy, just one woman. 

Nareh can’t look away from Erebuni, a chic, self-possessed woman who also happens to be an Explore Armenia board member with a day job at the Armenian Genocide Education Foundation. Erebuni not only pulls Nareh into her thrall, but also challenges her to investigate her Armenian heritage. Raised in a household where her late father aspired to white American ideals while her mother clung to Armenian culture, Nareh has until now failed to understand the impact of Armenia’s history on her family and the Armenian American community. As Nareh grows closer to Erebuni, she is forced to confront both her ambivalence about her ancestry as well as her bisexuality, which she fears will alienate her from the Armenian family she is just starting to better understand.

Voskuni does a beautiful job developing Nareh’s and Erebuni’s slow-simmering romance, which feels simultaneously familiar and refreshing. I rooted not only for their love, but for Nareh’s growth through the book as she carves a path that both empowers her and brings her closer to her family and greater community. I fell in love with Erebuni’s motley crew of Armenian American friends, who welcome Nareh into their fold and give her a newfound sense of belonging. Readers looking for steamy sex scenes won’t find them here—sex is broadly alluded to but remains Nareh’s and Erebuni’s little secret. But fans of this book will be happy to find that it is the first in a series: Lavash at First Sight hits shelves in 2024.

Content warnings: war, genocide, racism, sexism, homophobia/biphobia, death of a parent