Love, Theoretically by Ali Hazelwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was my Schrödinger’s reading experience: At the same time, this novel was what I expected – and it wasn’t at all. And by simply reading, I influenced the outcome of the experiment! Thankfully, it all went down in a very good way.
I smiled, grinned, and giggled my way through Ali Hazelwood’s “The Love Hypothesis” and even a bit more so with her “Love on the Brain”. I almost feverishly waited for “Love, Theoretically” and while I found myself smiling at the very first sentence, for quite a bit of the novel, I didn’t really get the same “vibes”.
Elsie seemed so naïve (a Goodreads friend of mine put it less favourably as “dumb af”!) and I wasn’t entirely sure about Jack either.
And then I started to understand that Hazelwood didn’t seem to aim for the nerdy, uplifting, carefree romance/romcom I was expecting. She actually seemed to take time to build up both protagonists.
»Professionally, my life sucks a bit. Psychologically, I’m not, as some would say, “healthy.” Musically, I should hire a tuba to follow me around. But on the upside, I’ve been killing it in the lunch invite department.«
Elsie has been manipulated, psychologically abused, and gaslighted from childhood on by pretty much everyone – starting with her mother, her brothers, her (fake-) boyfriend, her mentor – everyone but her best friend and the latter’s hedgehog. (Who she’s deeply suspicious of anyway, though!)
Elsie is so injured and so insecure, that she hides her personality and instead applies a strategy she calls “APE” – “Assess” what the person she’s interacting with expects from her, which “version” of her said person wants to interact with. Next comes the “Plan” phase during which Elsie quickly calculates success chances, tactics, etc. to best please her counterpart and then she “Enacts” the plan most likely to succeed.
Elsie can “read” anyone and hide from anyone – but Jack. And Jack has a razor sharp bullshit detector when it comes to Elsie.
No wonder she’s constantly tired. Elsie is a chameleon, or a shapeshifter, or changeling, if you will. She bends till breaking point and even with her best friend she’s not entirely honest.
Just like Jack I found myself wondering: »What happened to you, Elsie?«
Speaking of Jack: Jack lost his mother at such a young age, he doesn’t even have memories of her. What he got was a stepmother who ordered him to stop calling her “Mom” in a difficult situation. His father was pretty much absent. Greg, Jack’s brother, with his own issues is much of a confidant but not entirely either.
So we have two seriously “damaged” people meeting each other – and Elsie has been “trained” to despise or even hate Jack.
So, how do two people like that get together? Like hedgehogs, very carefully. (I am a dad so I’m allowed that joke!) In fact, they both hesitatingly agree on basic honesty and, like that, they grow together.
Don’t get me wrong: It isn’t all mental health and hide-and-seek between those two. Elsie, when alone in her own head, is a brilliant theoretical physicist and has very clear (and amusing) ideas…
»Experimentalists . . . well, they like to fuck around and find out. Build things and get their hands dirty. Like engineers. Or three-year-olds at the sandbox.«
(As an engineer I obviously find that comparison ludicrous and despicable but that’s theorists for you…)
I also cannot help but root for any person who believably says:
»I think I might be happy.
Though due to a lack of hands-on experience, I cannot be sure.«
As so often, there’s also lots to relate to:
»I love this. Just as much as I thought I hated him. And Jack’s right: this is going fast—too fast, maybe. But I wonder if certain relationships are living proof of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: their position and their velocity simply cannot both be measured at the same time, not even in theory.«
How often have I battled “Heisenbugs”? And didn’t my wife propose after a few weeks and didn’t we get married less than three months after our first meeting?
For once even the final “hiccup” between Elsie and Jack felt believable and, actually, right. It made sense on many levels and I felt a kind of pride in Elsie standing up for herself – at potentially huge cost to herself. Elsie felt like the most honest character Hazelwood has written so far. (And she’s right about the star of 2001 being HAL; about Lars von Trier; just not about Bing!)
»I’m a mess. A work in progress. I’m two steps forward and one step back. I hoard my cheese, and I can’t efficiently load the dishwasher, and I’m going to struggle with the truth until the day I croak.«
Also: An Adam and Olive cameo (and so nice!) and Bee is mentioned? I’m melting!
I remain convinced we’re pretty much all messes. Unique messes, messy messes, ugly messes, wonderful and horrible messes. First and foremost, though: Irresistibly human messes. I like that the novel celebrates that and shows how two messes can find love and happiness together.
This is certainly no perfect romance novel but it was nuanced, intelligent, empathic and, ultimately, something Ali Hazelwood is hopefully very damn proud of. I can hardly wait to see where Hazelwood takes us next. However else could I honour that but with full five stars out of five?
»I treasure my newfound feelings. Hoard them. Every once in a while I study them, turn them around, squint at them like they’re a ripe piece of fruit, plucked from a mysterious tree that shouldn’t even be growing in my yard. When I pop them in my mouth to swallow them whole, they taste at once bitter and delicious.«
Ceterum censeo Putin esse delendam
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Love, Theoretically by Ali Hazelwood