The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich
Published May 16, 2017
I really wanted to love this book. For starters, the concept is fabulous – a subversion of the traditional YA triangle that sees the two love interests (the nice boy-next-door type and the bad boy) falling in love with each other instead of with the girl. The cover art is gorgeous too and there are some great lines spoofing the trope and genre that made me laugh out loud, but ultimately The Love Interest fails to deliver on its potential, making for a fairly disappointing read.
I suspect the fault lies with author Cale Dietrich, who doesn’t seem to know what he wants the book to be. At times The Love Interest seems to be going for a straightforward satire of the YA romance genre, but at other times it builds its own dystopian world and story, a rather dark imagining where boys are groomed from childhood to be “love interests” for potentially important people and two boys somewhat inexplicably (there’s a quick hand wave explanation about the chosen girl being more likely to make a decision when two men are competing for her affection) are selected to compete. The winner gets the girl, and spends the rest of his life spying and reporting any secrets and important information she has. The loser, well, dies.
Dietrich tries to accomplish both a satire and an original dystopian story, but the result of trying to do both is a novel that doesn’t do either well enough to be considered a success. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely fun (I’d give it 3 stars for pure enjoyment and 2.5 for execution) and worth checking out, especially since the book can be finished in a couple of hours, just don’t expect logic or deep thoughts from this novel.
For me, the main issue was that some of the in-story takes on YA tropes don’t make sense within the context of the world. Take for example the simplistic Nice vs. Bad formula where each boy is trained and groomed to fit into one of these rigid types and one Nice and one Bad are sent after each chosen girl. Straight out of the CW playbook to be sure, and it works as a send-up of the trope, but there’s never any explanation offered within the world for why these types have to be adhered to.
I found myself asking why a lot while reading this book and not getting much in the way of satisfying answers.
We’re told this is the world’s most powerful spy organization, with enough power to put its spies at the right hand of just about every powerful person in history, including multiple Love Interest first ladies (does that make Jackie O a Nice and Marilyn Monroe a Bad?). But if the organization has these resources, enough to have rooms full of boys who may or may not be chosen, and enough to seemingly kill off those who aren’t chosen by the girl, why wouldn’t they devote some of their wealth to creating parent spies, etc. instead of sticking the Love Interests with reject parents? Surely some of the important ‘Chosen’ girls would judge a guy based on his parents/connection with his family. Even if Caden’s parental stand-ins are as bad as it gets, when the Love Interest is supposed to spend the rest of his life with the Chosen, won’t the parents/in-laws have a role in any normal couple’s relationship? Why not create better adult spies?
And while I certainly get retaining tight control of these Love Interests, isn’t it risky to give them absolutely no experience, even controlled environment experience elsewhere in the world, but to throw them in directly out of the compound? What if their reactions to things give them away?
I was also unsatisfied with the lack of information provided about the coaches, who act as relationship counselors, providing advice, scripts, and an in ear voice to the Love Interests. How do they fit in? Are they fully-fledged spies? Are they devoid of emotion? How else would you deal with the sort of job that means you have a 50-50 chance of losing the person you’re coaching?
This review sounds negative, but there really are a lot of things I enjoyed about the book. When it does hit the satire, it does so really really well. We are introduced to the (male) protagonist describing their physical appearance and flaws in a clear reversal of female YA protagonists, and the fact that the character quite literally has no name and no identity except as a love interest is fitting.
Caden’s internal response to Juliet’s casual remark that every girl falls in love with a gay guy at least once, it’s a rite of passage, is also perfect:
“I don’t exist to teach her a lesson, and it irks me that she thinks labeling me is okay now. Like, by liking guys I automatically take on that role in her life. That I’m suddenly a supporting character in her story rather than the hero of my own.”
Also, there are gems like this:
“There is one thing that’s always bugged me,” I say. “I’d like to know why the LIC is so focused on pairing us in high school. Like, wouldn’t it be better to send us in when we’re a bit older? No one finds the love of their life while they’re a teenager.”
“You haven’t read any YA novels recently, have you?”
There are sparks of brilliance here in these lines and a few others that made me laugh out loud or that I found especially moving, but the effort is inconsistent and the worldbuilding lacks some logic and depth. The worldbuilding is the kind of thing I could excuse in a straight (pardon the word choice) satire, but in a novel that’s trying to be its own story, it just didn’t work for me.
I generally liked the characters, but felt that they weren’t explored enough or given enough depth. The Chosen girl, Juliet, is a gifted scientist (a nice change to see a girl be important because of her talent for science), and she has a good group of friends who are also interesting, but I didn’t find Caden interesting enough to carry the narrative on his back. The Bad Love Interest, Dylan, is more layered, particularly given his insecurities hidden behind friendly confidence, but we don’t see enough of him to make up for Caden and, without spoiling anything, there’s an unnecessary plot reveal here that really rubbed me the wrong way before it’s resolved at the end.
Ultimately it’s an enjoyable enough light summer read, but there’s a lot of unrealized potential here, and it’s disappointing that the novel couldn’t do justice to the terrific concept.