There was much to love about Hoang’s The Heart Principle and not. The blurb has a rom-com vibe and not. Neither com nor angst fit the novel, solid romance for two-thirds and then a long-winded “something else”.
For what it’s worth, here’s the blurb and let’s see where it takes us:
When violinist Anna Sun accidentally achieves career success with a viral YouTube video, she finds herself incapacitated and burned out from her attempts to replicate that moment. And when her longtime boyfriend announces he wants an open relationship before making a final commitment, a hurt and angry Anna decides that if he wants an open relationship, then she does, too. Translation: She’s going to embark on a string of one-night stands. The more unacceptable the men, the better.
That’s where tattooed, motorcycle-riding Quan Diep comes in. Their first attempt at a one-night stand fails, as does their second, and their third, because being with Quan is more than sex—he accepts Anna on an unconditional level that she has just started to understand herself. However, when tragedy strikes Anna’s family she takes on a role that she is ill-suited for, until the burden of expectations threatens to destroy her. Anna and Quan have to fight for their chance at love, but to do that, they also have to fight for themselves.
Though the novel’s impetus was Anna and Quan’s romance, in the end, this was more Anna’s than Quan’s story. As soon as Anna is introduced, it’s evident she’s in emotional distress. She struggles to play her violin, the viral video having sent her into a spiral of self-doubt: when you’re an overnight sensation, how can you match your own success? Moreover, Anna’s boyfriend is a bonehead of the first order: after bringing him to bliss, he announces she’s the one for him; therefore, he needs to play the field before “settling down”. Strangely, and this struck me about Anna repeatedly, she isn’t angry. She’s hurt and rightly so, but her response is devoid of the boiling “we’re done” rage this should elicit. We soon come to like Anna better when she recounts: visits with her sympathetic therapist, her professional struggles, and, more significantly, interactions with her loving, but exacting family. When Anna’s therapist gently steers her to the realization she is on the autism spectrum, Anna gains an understanding of herself. Hoang is honest about Anna’s backsliding and dark times because there are no magical cures, not even Quan’s love-making, to Hoang’s credit and my nodding agreement.
Quan, who begins as Anna’s sticking-it-to-Julian-the-dick-boyfriend, becomes her friend; then, more than her friend. Quan is lovely, but as a character, he suffers from what I call Sonali-Dev syndrome: the closer and more loving the relationship with the heroine, the less solid a personality he has. Quan is gentle, understanding, funny, and loving. He is Anna’s perfect partner, understanding her need for solitude, down time, and space. Quan has suffered too. When the novel opens, he’s recovered from testicular cancer. He is diminished and “scarred” as he says, but is in a better place than Anna. Quan goes on the dating app because he’s ready to be with a woman again. Though they meet for a one-night stand, it’s obvious this isn’t compatible with their monogamous personalities. Their love scenes, numerous and explicit, are organic to who they are and how their relationship evolves; the scenes are a reflection of their vulnerabilities and fears; in time, a celebration of a hard-won love. The road to Shangri-La, however, is embedded with many painful bumps and ruts, especially when Anna’s world comes tumbling down.
[Spoiler and CW ahead] Anna’s family is loving, but doesn’t understand her. Her sister, in particular, doesn’t tolerate what she perceives are Anna’s “weaknesses”: her forgetfulness, procrastination, need for down time, etc., part and parcel of her neurodiversity. Her parents behave in what is, to me at least, a typical immigrant family: they have high expectations and one of the many is that you keep within the bounds of social norms of success and correct behaviour. Yeah, not Anna.
When Anna’s father has a stroke, her sister decides Anna, she, and their mother will care for him at home. The relentless round-the-clock care-giving is difficult to read about. Anna’s coping, as her therapist explains, to “mask” (that is, conform and please in order to “mask” neurodiversity, if I understood correctly) leads to a breakdown; embroiled in her attempt to hold it together by masking also results in emotionally betraying Quan. Though there’s an HEA for Quan and Anna, Hoang doesn’t want to offer a pat resolution to Anna’s emotional breakdown. In place of hunky-dory, Anna spirals into anxiety, depression, and grief. Many, many pages go by. I thought this section of the novel went on too long; what was a romance with a wonderful dose of heroine-growth turned into relentless misery-fest. I understood why this was important to Hoang, but I can’t say I enjoyed listening to it.
Lastly, the narration was competent, but not outstanding. I enjoyed Naudus’s Anna-narration: her voice has a lovely, husky innocence, in keeping with how I envisioned Anna. I cannot say the same for Nishii’s Quan-narration. It’s likely a personal quirk, but I disliked Nishii’s almost-childish timbre. It’s nitpicky, but I couldn’t stand the way he emphasized curse words and the drawn-out way he pronounced “hot” as hawt. On the other hand, I don’t know that I would have sight-read a novel this depressing; maybe listening to it helped me like it more than I would have, despite growing impatient with the drawn-out love scenes. Miss Austen agrees, The Heart Principle as audiobook is “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Helen Hoang’s The Heart Principle was created by Dreamscape Media. It releases today, September 2nd, and may be found wherever you prefer to get your audiobooks. I received an advanced audiobook from Dreamscape Media, via Netgalley, for the purpose of writing this review.