When a fake relationship between scientists meets the irresistible force of attraction, it throws one woman’s carefully calculated theories on love into chaos.
Published: September 2021
Pages (Hardback): 352
Rating: 4/5 Stars (excessive use of “nods” and “giggles”)
Uncomfortable confession time. I’m a hypocrite—and a closet hopeless romantic. But more than that, I am hauling some serious academic baggage. i.e., getting a degree in English (and being in the Advanced Placement/Gifted & Talented English program all through primary school) gave me some messed up perceptions of what “good literature” is supposed to look like. I actually went from loving reading to seeing it as a chore to not enjoying it at all over the course of my academic career.
It took me a depressing 10 years to get past it, during which time I only read a handful of books. Spoiler alert—the books that got me to love reading again weren’t classic fiction like Frankenstein (which I’ve shockingly never read, despite taking 3 courses where it was required reading). They were The Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Divergent. Those books were life blood to me in a time when reading was no longer pleasurable. And even as I enjoyed them, I felt silly for doing so. Because they were contemporary literature, rather than being written by an old dead white guy who historians arbitrarily decided was the apex of literary genius.
I sometimes miss academia and wish I’d gone further and gotten a graduate degree in literature or folklore or some other area that would damn me to a life as a teacher, for lack of better more practical applications. But reading The Love Hypothesis, I remembered why I didn’t. Academia is cut-throat, competitive, and high-pressure in a way that drives desperate people to commit plagiarism, have nervous breakdowns, and drop out when they are convinced that they’re inadequate.
I went through school with some of the brightest people I’ve ever known, people who I would absolutely categorize as top-tier geniuses. Some of them studied ancient Greek, others spent their time in the lab. But the thing that united us all was our constant dread of not being enough. Not performing well, not achieving the strenuous standards we were expected to measure up to. These were some of the most intelligent and promising people in the world, and they worried they were failures.
When I started reading The Love Hypothesis, it was for a lark. I had neglected to cancel my Book of the Month Subscription after signing up to get a discounted copy of a book based on an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, and Ali Hazelwood’s debut novel was one of the suggestions. Now, while I enjoy romance between characters, I don’t read romance novels. I typically find them too cheesy, too cringe, too filled with toxic stereotypes and unbelievable characters. The only reason I chose The Love Hypothesis was because I found out it was originally…a Star Wars fanfiction. Reylo, to be exact. And that piqued my interest for a couple reasons. 1 – I love Star Wars, and unironically enjoyed the new trilogy. And 2 – I’m fascinated by the gradual normalization of fanfiction as a legitimate form of writing. As a recovering academic, I thought it might offer some good insight. So, I bought it.
And let it sit on the shelf for months.
There was always something more ‘serious’ and ‘worthwhile’ to read. Most recently it has been the re-read of The Witcher books. And don’t get me wrong, I adore the series, but I’d gotten to the final part of the final novel when everyone starts dying (sorry), and I needed a break. I didn’t want to re-live my boy Geralt losing all his friends. I wanted something happy and upbeat to counteract the sledgehammer of anxiety this year has thrown at me in the form of Too Much Everything.
I started reading the book a couple days ago and finished it this morning. That’s not unheard of—I’ve read 400+ page books in one sitting if they were engaging enough. But these days, it’s rare. I’m usually distracted, or have other things I need to get done, and completing a book takes weeks because I have to take it in bite sized doses, between writing and emails and errands and life.
But here I am, staring at the closed book as it sits on my coffee table between a half-drunk cup of coffee and a pack of really pretty tarot cards. Contemplating why exactly it was so easy and effortless to read this book, and so thoroughly enjoyable, despite the tropes and cringey moments and basic language.
The book is definitely a romance. A fake-dating romance, to be exact. Which is not typically a genre or sub-genre I gravitate toward, but hey, I can’t call myself open minded and only stay in one lane. The biggest takeaway for me right now, is that I’m a bit embarrassed that I was judging the book by its contents before even reading it. And the fact that what actually got me to commit, was realizing the author is a neuroscientist.
It’s harmless on the surface to say that I was more willing to read a book that takes place in a college biology department when I learned it was written by a scientist. We want our books to be believable and well described, after all. It’s sensible, logical. But the root of this revelation being the reason why I decided to read the entire novel, is that I will trust the words of an academic over a rando who wrote a fanfiction about academia. And there’s something wrong with that.
If I had just given the book a chance, I’d have been pleasantly surprised from the start. The story is cleverly written, easily absorbed, and fixes all the things that were wrong with Rey and Kylo in the source material. Kylo isn’t a psychopathic dictator—he’s a successful scientist whose students hate him in that way that students always hate a good teacher. Because he holds them accountable for their errors and doesn’t mince words when he explains why their work sucks.
A major plot point in the novel is Olive (the narrator) confronting Adam (the love interest) over his approach to critiquing students. She has a point; he is known throughout the department for making people cry and even drop out of school. But as the story unfolds, Adam reveals that his own mentor in graduate school was an abusive ass who humiliated students publicly—tearing them down as people, rather than just criticizing their work. Adam, by contrast, chooses to focus on the science. When he tells someone they’re wrong, it’s because the science is bad, not because they’re bad. His goal is to ensure the students don’t think that their value as humans is inextricably linked to how well they do as scientists, while also ensuring bad science doesn’t become published or waste funds.
The level of detail Hazelwood lovingly goes into when describing the experience of academia, particularly STEM, and the often-terrifying process of building your career, is honestly brilliant. She manages to make it both heartfelt and funny, and while I am not a STEM person, I know enough people in that field to recognize the realism behind the humor. She also tackles the pervasive issue of sexism within higher education and science, and clearly delineates the difference between being strict and being unethical.
While the primary plot centers around a silly fake-dating experience, the actual core of the book is the interaction between a promising young female scientist who is up against insurmountable odds and the slightly older tenured professor who genuinely believes in her and wants her to excel. He still fits the Mr. Darcy-esque vibe of the always-dresses-in-black, broody and successful (not to mention ripped) love interest, but despite being indulgently attractive, he represents something else that’s very important: a man in STEM who unabashedly and uncreepily admires his younger female colleague, does everything he can to ensure she has the resources and confidence needed to conduct her research, and immediately takes her side when he realizes his own close friend is threatening her career.
Beyond that flip-of-the-script, the book joyfully includes queer characters, an ambitious woman of color who is eager to change the world for the better, and plenty of nerdy scientific references I barely understood but loved nonetheless. Each chapter starts with a different “hypothesis” that hints at what will happen next, with such gems as “Hypothesis: The more I need my brain to be on top of its game, the higher the probability that it will freeze on me”. Same, girl.
I’ll offer the disclaimer that yes, this is a romance novel and yes, there is exactly one scene (two chapters) that earns the book its place in the adult section of the bookstore. But if you’re cool with that, or cool with skipping it, the rest of the book is refreshingly focused on the friendship and mutual intellectual attraction between two awkward people who, like many struggling to build their reputations in the academic world, have placed research over relationships and forgotten how to people.
The main character is also explicitly stated to identify as demisexual and offers a sincere definition of what it means to her that doesn’t sound like it was copy and pasted from AVEN (the Asexual Visibility and Education Network), and the love interest gets it right away without needing to ask dumb questions, which is very cool.