JOINT REVIEW: The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang
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 herself has just started to understand. 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.
Trigger and content warnings:
Jayne: I remember that after reading Helen Hoang’s last book we learned it would be a longer than usual wait for this book. I was disappointed because I’d really enjoyed The Bride Test and wanted to read Quan’s story but I just thank her for this book, for taking care of herself, and for not pushing to deliver more than she felt able to do.
Janine: I was glad she waited, too. Publishing deadlines are tight these days and I wish more authors were given enough time to make their books as good as they can be. Nevertheless, this is not my favorite of Hoang’s books.
Jayne: Agreed and agreed. There are a lot of issues melded into this book, some of which might be difficult for some readers. I hope that people read the tags and trigger warnings we’ve included and be sure they’re ready to face them. I also feel that in my opinion, this is more a women’s fiction book albeit one with strong romantic threads. There is a lot of the book told from Quan’s POV but for me, the book still focused more on Anna.
Janine: Agreed. Anna’s personal issues were foregrounded and her relationship with Quan was, if not in the background, in mid-ground. And I think I would have appreciated the book more had I expected women’s fiction.
Jayne: There have been a lot of books released in the past year or two that I felt needed either a different blurb or a different cover so that readers would know more of what to expect from them. I don’t think mismatching does a book any favors.
Janine: Books with illustrated covers are selling and everyone is jumping on that bandwagon, so I think we readers have to adapt by letting go of our expectations that the genre, subgenre, or tone will match the cover style. Otherwise we will experience constant whiplash.
In this case, though, it’s particularly egregious since it’s not only the cover that’s misleading but also the tone and genre of the author’s earlier books. For an author to change genres and tones with no indication whatsoever–no corresponding change in the style of cover art or classification and no announcement from her or her publisher–goes beyond doing a disservice to the book and starts to feel like an attempt to pull a fast one. I didn’t pay for the book since I read an ARC but if I had spent hard-earned money to buy a romance I would be incensed.
Jayne: I’m glad that I had your impression of it in my mind when I started reading as yes, it doesn’t read like a romance.
Anna is a complex person. She’s intelligent, driven, and deeply unhappy. She’s spent a lifetime trying to be what other people want and expect her to be. Strong family expectations have shaped her – bent her, might be a better way to say it – and now crushed under the weight of her expectations of perfection, she’s finally sought therapy. She doesn’t think she’s getting much from it and exhausts herself further trying to say what she thinks the therapist wants to hear. Her boyfriend is a shit even though her family thinks he’s wonderful. But his desire to avoid “FOMO” before settling down with Anna inadvertently brings Quan into her life. So yay that.
I really need to watch the octopus documentary that initially bonds Anna and Quan through nerdy TV viewing. And yes, David Attenborough’s voice makes for great Netflix viewing.
Janine: That was cute. I thought Anna’s people-pleasing (a symptom of her initially undiagnosed autism) and the stress it caused her were well portrayed. So was the additional strain brought on by her block (she is a violinist/YouTube sensation and struggles to play from the heart while practicing a piece composed expressly for her by a renowned composer).
Jayne: Yes, I really got that – how crippling it all was for her. Quan might not have been in The Bride Test much (and I still haven’t read The Kiss Quotient) but I liked what I read about him there. Since then he’s faced down his own demons and survived. Still he has both physical and emotional scars from the battle. I felt like I needed just a bit more about him showing the physical scars to Anna. It’s built up and built up then seemed to be quickly rushed past when it happened.
Janine: I agree on the latter. I liked Quan’s vulnerability in this book but it wasn’t what I expected. He was confident and a bit of a player in the prior books and I was looking forward to that. Still, I appreciated the freshness of what it was that had scarred Quan. I haven’t seen that before in a romantic figure, have you?
Jayne: I can’t recall it. But I do remember our mutual friend whose husband also had testicular cancer and how devastating it was for both of them and the hope for children.
Sex and physical intimacy are a big part of the story. Anna doesn’t feel that sex with her asshat boyfriend is any great shakes while Quan worries about how women will view his body now. For both of them, a one-night stand makes sense to me. Since Anna hasn’t ever done anything like this before, giving her another reason to do it beyond just to show her fuckwit boyfriend she can helped me accept that she’d do something like this.
Janine: I love that Hoang doesn’t write the same sex scene twice. When I think back on the sex scenes in all three books, each one is distinct and different. Each particular character brings his/her vulnerabilities, experiences, and emotional conflicts to each scene and so each hero and heroine make love as only these two specific people would.
Jayne: I do pay more attention to her sex scenes than I often do in other books. Speaking more about Quan – he ended up coming across as a Perfect Boyfriend. At first, no matter what Anna did (e.g. dodging into the bathroom on their first “date”) Quan was okay with giving her another chance, carefully talking to her, not rushing her physically, affirming her – yeah, it’s great to read this but how realistic is it that one guy is this forgiving? It’s like he’s her therapist. And then he’s about the only character to “get” her and “see” her. So despite Anna mentally wailing “Why can’t Quan just know what I need sexually?” Quan is written to read her like a book in every other aspect.
Janine: Yes, he’s far too perfect. That’s a great point.
My biggest issue with the book was one of Anna’s choices. I saw it as very close to unforgivable. She does something nonconsensual to a helpless person over that person’s protests and I had a hard time getting over that.
Jayne: Yes, that was disturbing. It was another thing that made me hate her sister.
Janine: The plot points you mention were fresh and good in and of themselves. But along with what I just mentioned and with something else that happens with Anna and Quan late in the book, they give the novel a far darker tone than I expected and I was taken aback. Not to beat a dead horse but all this would have been a much more minor issue had I known what to expect in terms of tone and genre. I didn’t so much forgive Anna as let go of my anger at her when I finally decided to look at the book as women’s fiction. My entire reading experience would have been a lot more positive if the genre had been accurately framed.
As I just alluded to, Anna’s treatment of Quan was also pretty awful and I wanted her to grovel more. Quan deserved better. In this case, too, the moral choice was crystal clear and she turned away from it for selfish reasons.
Jayne: Did you feel there was any ableism and if so, how was the ableism handled for you?
Janine: I didn’t feel there was much if any. Unlike Stella and Khai in the earlier two books, Anna was new to her diagnosis of autism, so it made sense that there would be an adjustment period. And unlike with Khai and Stella, I didn’t read her as ashamed of her neurodiversity, for the most part, more as worried (rightly so) about whether her family would handle her diagnosis well.
Jayne: One thing that struck me positively is how Anna doesn’t realize she is on the autism spectrum because her symptoms aren’t like Sheldon’s in “The Big Bang Theory.” Not everyone’s symptoms are the same and having that shown is great. It’s kind of like how people expect all heart attack symptoms to be the same and risk not seeking help because they don’t feel they’re having an attack. Once Anna realizes that this is a possibility, her world is changed. She feels validated and known. “I get to be the expert on me.”
Janine: Yes, that was great.
Jayne: The representation of Asian characters and culture is strong in this book. Quan’s family is Vietnamese American, Anna’s is Chinese American, and both are the children of first-generation immigrants. There’s a discussion of second-gen immigrants’ struggles with their older generations’ languages and also “Not the right Asian” included as Anna’s mother isn’t wild about Quan’s tattoos or the fact that he is of Vietnamese descent. Oh and Anna’s statement that Quan is the only Asian she knows who actually practices martial arts cracked me up.
Janine: Yes, I loved the representation, and as an immigrant, I feel she got the immigrant experience aspect of it right.
Jayne: Then there’s the complicated relationship Anna has with her awful older sister. Early in the book, Anna recalls something her sister did to her when Anna didn’t add the “older sister” je when addressing Priscilla and I thought “I don’t think I’m going to like this character.” Priscilla is very much like an Asian stereotype of hard work, top schools, and outward perfection. She’s also horrid to Anna and I had a quick thought that she needed to be dropped in a shark tank.
It was fun to see a bit of Khai again but I missed Esme. On the other hand, it was great that this didn’t turn into an Old Home Week the way some series have been doing. I enjoyed watching the established and obviously close relationship between Michael and Quan and major booyah that Michael and Stella stick up for Quan at one point. That had to mean a lot.
Janine: The character I missed was Quan’s mother. I wanted to see Cô Nga! I still say that she deserves her own book.
Jayne: Yes! I missed her, too. I loved the character of Rock and how his facial expressions changed. Okay, I know that’s not really possible but he’s cute.
“Rock sits next to the case, his painted smile aimed up at me, and I pet him once in greeting.
“You’re such a good boy,” I say. “The cutest rock I’ve ever seen.”
His smile doesn’t move, of course it doesn’t, but I can tell he’s pleased with the attention. If he had a tail, he wouldn’t be able to control his wag. I recognize that it’s possibly a bad sign that I’ve taken to anthropomorphizing a stone, but there’s something about his crooked eyes and mouth that gives him an extra splash of character. After a moment, I can tell he wants me to get to business, and I sigh and focus on the instrument case.”
Janine: For me that was overly cute.
Jayne: I guess I just look for pets in all the books I read.
Janine: LOL. You do!
What is your grade, Jayne? Looking over my review makes me realize I am dissatisfied, but I really feel that the genre misclassification bears a lot of the responsibility for that. As a romance, this book is a C-/C for me, but it would probably have been a B- if I had read it as women’s fiction.
Jayne: I agree about all this. Had I gone into it thinking “romance book” my grade would be much lower but since you’d already alerted me to the fact that it wasn’t, I was prepared so my grade is more a B-.
I have heard so much about this book already that I am almost afraid to read it. I put my name down for a hold at the library more than a year ago and after a long wait, it is finally on my Kindle. Will have to come back to your review when I finish to see your take on the spoilers. I sort of feel bad for the author, maybe she should have released it under a pseudonym so the expectations wouldn’t be so heavy.
@SusanS: What else did you hear about it?
@SusanS: There are definitely some good parts but as I said, I’m glad that I knew from Janine ahead of time what I was getting into. I’d bet a lot of disappointment with the book is based on the lack of as much romance as people expected.
@Janine: There are several long reviews by authors I follow on Goodreads that described the book as unsuccessful and disappointing.
Thanks. Off to look for them, though on average it’s well rated there (by GR standards).
I had this pre-ordered but a credit card stuff up meant it didn’t go through. I don’t think I will be rectifying that mistake. I’ve noticed a trend where a lot of romance authors are moving into women’s fiction and publishers are not being up front about this. I’ve also noticed the trend of heroines being awful to their heroes. I don’t like H being horrible to h and vice versa. Don’t with it and don’t want to read those books. There have been at least three recent books I’ve read where it hasn’t been addressed and I’ve been absolutely gobsmacked. I’m feeling pretty disillusioned about a lot of what is being published lately. Maybe it’s the state of the world around me that is affecting me but I’m buying a whole lot less.
I loved it, and rated it 5, but yes, the romance is definitely not as strong here as it was in the two previous books. It kind of feels more like the British versions of romance – with Katie Fforde, than the American.
@Bronte (and @Jayne):
You and Jayne have both mentioned this. Which books?
Please give me these titles too because forewarned is forearmed. I sometimes love that kind of wrongdoing because I love a growth arc, but when it isn’t addressed it can often be the worst of both worlds—no growth and no maturity from the beginning either. So frustrating.
This book did address it but not in the way I wanted. Anna apologizes and she had suffered a lot so I didn’t necessarily want to see Quan hurt her too, but if he had given her the cold shoulder I would have felt he was well within his rights. He didn’t get enough groveling given what she put him through.
In some ways I felt that Anna was treated like a child, not just by her sister Priscilla who treated her like one by bossing her, disregarding her wishes, and hectoring her as an abusive parent would, but also by the authorial voice—whether or not it was the case in reality, the book read like the author was Anna’s overprotective parent and didn’t want much anger or criticism to come to her after all the abuse she’d gotten. So Anna was never really burdened with the full consequences for her actions. Quan was more forgiving than he should, by all rights, have been, and with her dad that was even more the case. I would have liked to see Anna apologize to him, even if it was only to his tombstone. She never earned his forgiveness either, that’s for sure.
END OF SPOILER
@Anne: My definition of a romance is that a romantic relationship that ends happily needs to compose at least 51% of the book’s focus. There can be a very prominent secondary plot but if it’s over 50’% then it’s no longer secondary and so the book is no longer a romance.
I would say that in this book the focus was about 60% on how Anna needed to lean to speak up to be mentally well and have healthy relationships (not necessarily romantic ones), and maybe 40% on Anna and Quan’s romance. So it was very clearly *NOT* a romance. Note also that while there was some focus on how Anna’s issues had side effects that impacted her relationship with Quan, there was almost nothing about how Quan’s issues affected their relationship—another clue was that the book was primarily about Anna and her issues and only secondarily about Quan or about them as a couple.
And now I have a question for you (I don’t read Katie Fforde—I had the impression that she writes chick lit—or many contemporary romances by British authors). If this is what they call a romance novel in Britain, what do they define as a Women’s Fiction novel there?
I have to agree on your points regarding cover choices and marketing. It’s not just this book. Book covers and the “packaging” and packaging IS marketing. I’m increasingly frustrated with the choice to blanket choose these covers for so many books lately = it very much is false advertising. Though I suspect a clear choice by trade publishers to shed what they see as the “romance” stigma and have the genre put out alongside whatever other women’s fiction is selling.
Having said that, I actually really liked the book, and I have to take exception with a couple of things in your review:
Judging representation of either cultural or neurodivergent experiences of an authors actual lived experience if you are white and neurotypical is out of pocket. In the afterward Helen Hoang speaks about her experiences and how this book is autobiographical in many respects including the fact that because the material is so personal is in part the reason for the delay in publishing.
@Shelley: Yeah, the mis-marketing is really frustrating and not just to us. I’ve heard that from other readers too.
As to your other concern, you have a point, absolutely, but I refer you to these #ownvoices reviews of this and another of Hoang’s books.
This one on the portrayal of Autism:
And this one touches on the cultural stuff: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4164627319
I am not neurodiverse, but I have multiple other disabilities, a couple physical and a couple otherwise, so I feel I can speak to ableism more generally. And I don’t see anywhere where we indicated that Hoang’s portrayals in this book were inauthentic, anyhow. To the contrary, we said we thought they were.
I almost said in the review that right from the first chapter I suspected Hoang was writing from personal experience, because of the commonalities between Anna’s block and writer’s block (I’m a writer and have experienced the second) and for other reasons too.
Finally, I have to add something here that I hope will not get your back up. As someone with invisible disabilities, I hate it when I get called out for not having a disability. You didn’t do this, but others have. I shouldn’t have to go public with my disabilities to explain that a call-out is unsubstantiated any more than the author who was a rape survivor (I can’t remember her name) should have been forced to share her traumatic past after being pilloried for the “inauthenticity” of how she portrayed that kind of experience. So I wish people would stop making these kinds of assumptions. Everyone should have the right to keep their personal health—and for that matter anything else about their lives—private if they want to.
I’m not at all offended re: invisible disabilities. I would absolutely not presume as I have a chronic and degenerative illness that is invisible so no worries there. It was the line “I felt she got the immigrant experience aspect right aspect right” and shortly after a comment on Pricilla coming off as a stereotype that I felt needed pointing out.
@Shelley: ((((Hugs)))) on the illness, I know that can be tough.
I am an immigrant (came here at the age of eleven, I don’t know if that makes me first- or second-generation) so I’ve experienced and/or seen up close many of the things described in the book like struggling to speak/read/write in the native (or parents’ native) language “well enough” relative to other members of the same immigrant community, immigrant parents who demand much of their children, and pressure to marry someone from the country of origin.
I also have or have had multiple close 1st/2nd gen immigrant family members and friends who came (or their parents did) from a number of parts of the world–South Korea, China, Morocco, Lebanon, India, South Africa, Belgium, Italy, Yemen, Syria and Brazil, as well as an uncle who migrated to Switzerland and siblings-in-law and nieces who migrated to China and Japan (and more recently Macau). I find I gravitate toward other immigrants because it’s such a formative experience and there are many commonalities to it across cultures.
Am I Vietnamese-American? Do I have first-hand experience of that culture and can I speak to that particular culture’s immigrant experience authoritatively? Absolutely not. But when I said that I felt Hoang got that immigrant stuff right (she did a stellar job with that in THE BRIDE TEST too IMO) I was basing it on the many commonalities that I and several of my immigrant acquaintances have observed.
A good friend (white, Protestant and American) once said to me, “Your mom is like a sitcom mom except it isn’t funny.” I wasn’t offended because it’s true. In my mom’s case the Jewish mother stereotype and the reality match up; sometimes overlaps happen. So I didn’t read Jayne’s comment as a criticism of an inauthenticity in Hoang’s portrayal, not at all.
When joint reviews are written, neither reviewer knows what the other is going to say, so we can’t predict what comments will be juxtaposed with what others, and then we also have to take into account the conversational flow and keeping the review from getting too choppy. So we work within constraints and sometimes the results of that can be unfortunate. I’ll try to take that into account in the future.