Declan Swick-Smith’s group of tight-knit friends have given him his very own tagline: he left his last boyfriend at the altar, so watch out. True, Declan got cold feet some six years ago, but the tagline hasn’t worn off any more than Declan’s feet have thawed. He’ll go out with someone for a good time, just not a long time. And for a while, that suits his needs just fine. Time even seems to have healed the chasm that opened in his chest after refusing the man he thought he loved; hell, his ex is still very present in their group of friends and they talk frequently. But relationships have soured for Declan, which is why it feels so odd to him that a new comer to their circle sparks a bit of interest. Sure, their mutual friends were thinking of connecting Declan’s ex with this new person, Sidney Ertz-Scott…but after one night of hanging out at the bar, suddenly Declan finds himself starring in Sidney’s YouTube program “Your Spinster Uncle” and crushing hard.
Soon, Declan discovers that he very much might like to jump back into conventional dating, but only if gender-queer Sidney can serve as a guide. The dates Sidney sets up play into their YouTube program as a new feature called “The Love Study” that aims to explore queer relationships and provide answers. The dates Sidney picks for Declan run the gamut from “fine” to “very not fine.” But the longer the two collaborate on the program, the more Declan realizes he doesn’t want Sidney’s advice, he just wants Sidney. However, the fact that he “left his last boyfriend at the altar” is an albatross around his neck. Plus, Declan is worried he will expect too much or be too conventional for a relationship with Sidney. On top of all that, Declan’s work expectations are mounting and it’s only a matter of time before Declan convinces himself there is nowhere to go but down, down, down. Can he really learn the lessons of The Love Study?
The Love Study is a contemporary novel featuring a colorful cast of millennials exploring their lives through the lenses of friendship and love. The story is told in first-person narrative from Declan’s perspective, so readers can get a great feel for the events that have shaped him as a character. Both his inner monologue and audible dialogue reflect his world view. I understood Declan to be a very compassionate friend who is concerned with respecting individuals. This comes across in subtle ways, like how he automatically seems to pick up on pronouns, and more overt ways, like bringing coffee to a coworker who is having a tough day, even though Declan doesn’t necessarily like that coworker. Personally, however, I found the narrative to be rather…distracting. This is mainly conveyed through the speech patterns, like ubiquitous use of “um,” and his very careful language. At times, it was a bit tiring reading Declan because of the constant “I think X…unless that somehow offends you, because I totally mean it in a non-offensive way.” The combination of seemingly constant self-monitoring and filler words made it hard to remember Declan is supposed to be a whole grown adult rather than a struggling teen.
For readers looking for a story that places a hefty focus on queer narratives, there is a lot to enjoy in this book. In addition to the romance featuring a genderqueer character, there is also the theme of exploring and rejecting conventional portrayals and acts of “love.” Specifically, Sidney identifies as they/them and just wants potentially to explore a relationship where the focus is on doing activities that make the participants comfortable, happy, and satisfied. I also enjoyed the challenge of NOT applying even “queer” labels to Sidney, because the whole character felt like seeing them through any lens (cis, trans, straight, gay, whatever) necessarily sets up boundaries that may artificially influence one’s behavior.
As far as pacing goes, there was a clear emphasis on Declan and his group of friends. This later shifts towards an emphasis on Declan and Sidney as they begin working together on Sidney’s YouTube videos. Personally, I found the lead up to the two main characters declaring their interest a bit tiresome. It was clear from the first time Declan meets Sidney that Declan is extremely attracted and interested in Sidney in any capacity. Once they finally decide to get together, there is a shift to a lot of self-doubt on Declan’s part. His past failed engagement ends up playing a significant role in the book and is the catalyst for the big conflict in the romance part of the story. I should also mention that Declan’s day job gets mentioned a lot. I suppose I can see how his professional life mirrors his personal life…commitment averse at first, but finds a comfortable fit at the end. But on the whole, that thread seems superfluous to the main threads of identity, conventionalism, and (self-inflicted) emotional trauma.
On the whole, this is a fine book for anyone interested in in-depth, involved narratives set largely within a queer community. Younger readers may enjoy the narrative voice more than I did (I had to constantly remind myself these people were 29 give-or-take). Regardless, the themes Ripper incorporates are an interesting challenge to read vis-a-vis one’s own experiences of life, culture, and romance.