What’s new, everyone? The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang is one of my all-time favorite romcom reads, and her sophomore effort, The Bride Test, isn’t far behind. Now she’s come out with her third novel, The Heart Principle (notice the mathematical theme of all three names?). It follows Anna Sun, a professional violinist who, due to a viral YouTube video of a gorgeous performance of hers, finds it impossible to regain the fulfillment she once felt from her career in the thick of the perfectionist pressure she puts on herself. Things don’t get any easier when her boyfriend Julian declares he wants them to explore an open relationship before settling down. In retaliation, the typically timid Anna agrees to his proposal so that she can scroll through dating apps and pursue a hookup of her own—a course of action that leads her to Quan Diep, the motorcycle-riding, tattooed, shaven-headed cousin of The Kiss Quotient’s escort-turned-fashion designer Michael Larsen. However, their first night doesn’t pan out smoothly. Same goes for their second night. And then their third night. As they get to know each other better through this rocky start, the prospect of a one-night stand becomes muddied for them, since Quan turns out to be perfect for a serious relationship with Anna.
TW: implicit mention of suicidal ideation
Ohhhh, how I adore The Heart Principle. This is far from a shocker, considering how Hoang has already proven herself to be a master at creating an empathetic lens through which readers connect deeply with her dynamic and lovable characters, particularly the neuroatypical leads. Her third novel, however, deviates from not only her previous work but also most other members of the romcom genre with its solemn, introspective, and sometimes startlingly dark tone. If you’re in the mood for a breezy romcom, this is far from the suitable option. But the genuine gravity of its approach, when combined with the immersive quality of the first-person present-tense POV, fits well for the narrative and its leads.
This is unquestionably Anna’s story, and I was connecting with her every step of the way as she navigated multiple challenges: her new diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, her autistic and caregiver burnouts in the midst of dealing with her family obligations, her complicated family dynamic and the role its tough love plays in her people-pleaser personality, and the inhibitions she has when it comes to the bedroom. Funnily enough, she reminds me a little of autistic econometrician Stella Lane from The Kiss Quotient in that they’re both women who are seeking sex, albeit for different reasons. Anna also attends therapy, something that I’m glad to see being featured in a growing number of contemporary romances, since therapy is an essential process that needs to be destigmatized in order to repel the cultural hush-hush around the topic of mental health.
As for Quan, he’s a cinnamon roll, no doubt about it. Initially reluctant to return to the dating scene after surviving cancer, his plan for a one-night stand goes flying out the window once he falls for Anna. From there on he is nothing but extraordinarily supportive, patient, and devoted to her. While the story doesn’t give his character arc as much time to be fleshed-out as it does for Anna’s arc, it’s nonetheless touching to watch him build up a vulnerable bond with her and echo her journey of self-acceptance.
Keeping in line with the novel’s predecessors, the sex scenes, rather than being planted in the story purely to add sizzle, are key to advancing the central relationship. Don’t get me wrong, the spice can be a blast in romances, but I don’t want them dumping it all over me. The scenes in The Heart Principle are reminiscent of the intimacy that gradually developed in The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test as their leads traversed the ups and downs of their woohoo, learned how to touch each other’s bodies, and listened up whenever one partner wanted to stop or keep going. I kept thinking of The Kiss Quotient in particular because of Quan’s willingness to take things slow with Anna and his ability to listen to what she does or doesn’t want in bed—an element that is strikingly evocative of Michael’s treatment of Stella at the outset of their fake-dating romance.
Neurodiversity is a portion of our world that continues to receive little representation, and when it does get attention, it’s usually done in such a painfully misguided fashion that you’re left begging for some mental disinfectant wipes to scrub the experience from your brain. That’s why I appreciate the compassionate voice that Hoang, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism herself, gives to her neurodiverse characters. The fact that this novel is so personal to her, as you’ll see when you read her author’s note, adds an extra dimension of powerful emotion that will be cathartic for readers who’ve had similar caregiving experiences.
My only gripe is with how the novel initially relies on Julian’s request for an open relationship to spur Anna into her hookup hunt. At first, this felt like a sweeping criticism of such a romantic structure. As I kept reading, the book made it clearer that it’s setting up Julian as a grade-A prick not because of the open relationship itself but because of how he launched it without looking to Anna for an ounce of her permission. On top of that, he also ignores all of her opinions, pushes her to give him blowjobs in spite of her hating them, and generally expects her to be an acquiescent future wife. Still, I wish it could have been explicitly conveyed that ethical non-monogamy is a perfectly valid part of society as long as everyone involved is giving their avid consent.
All in all, The Heart Principle is another winner from Hoang. She gave her all for this emotional rollercoaster, and I’m eager to see what she’ll create next. Be sure to listen to my episode on this book once I upload it to the 2 Cents Critic podcast.
As always, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 95/100