The Love Interest by Cale Dietrich
Release Date: May 16, 2017
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Themes: LGBTQIA+, dystopian, parody/literary commentary
My Rating: ★★★★
Goodreads Summary: There is a secret organization that cultivates teenage spies. The agents are called Love Interests because getting close to people destined for great power means getting valuable secrets. Caden is a Nice: The boy next door, sculpted to physical perfection. Dylan is a Bad: The brooding, dark-souled guy, and dangerously handsome. The girl they are competing for is important to the organization, and each boy will pursue her. Will she choose a Nice or the Bad? Both Caden and Dylan are living in the outside world for the first time. They are well-trained and at the top of their games. They have to be – whoever the girl doesn’t choose will die. What the boys don’t expect are feelings that are outside of their training. Feelings that could kill them both.
First of all, I’ve been excited about this book’s release since October of last year. The premise of the subversion of YA tropes was fascinating, and I was really happy that someone was finally going to point out all of the things wrong with Young Adult books that have been published in the past, and the harmful tropes that are often interlaced into some of our favorite books. However, around the release date, when I picked up my own copy, I started noticing that there were a lot of mixed reviews. I didn’t read ANY of them in order to avoid spoilers, but seeing all of the ratings started making me a little bit nervous, but I was hopeful. This book had the potential to be everything I had ever wanted in a YA novel. After finishing it, I find that I’ve come away with pretty complicated feelings about this book, especially after reading several reviews (both positive and negative).
The Love Interest is clearly meant to be a parody on the typical “love triangle” trope, and I think it needs to be treated as such. The main characters, Caden and Dylan, fit the “nice” and “bad” boy molds that they’ve been trained to fill, yet that isn’t entirely who they are. They both have their own ideas about who they want to be in life, and they have their own interests and personalities outside of the job they’ve been given of winning over “the love interest”. Honestly, that wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting sort of robotic characters who just spit out the answers that were expected of them, rather than actual human beings who had been trained into a profession. While I feel like there could have been a bit more character development (especially in the side characters), Dylan and Caden were a lot less one-dimensional than I was expecting.
I think this worked for a couple of reasons. One, it made the characters more interesting, and made it easier to become invested in their stories. Two, Dietrich used it to bring in a lot of pop culture references that I really liked. I love it when characters actually have hobbies, or like music and reading, because it makes them more relatable. Three, it gave Dietrich more room to play with his commentary on their roles in the love triangle. It allowed him to add in a lot more commentary on the problematic aspects of the male stereotypes that often accompany love triangles. One of my favorite lines in the book is a comment that Dylan makes to Caden, wherein he states that he has to be rude and mean to everyone to make himself look stronger, because “strong nowadays means being a total dick”. A tragic backstory and a hard outer shell (put up to protect oneself) do not excuse attitude towards others, and general unkindness. You can be a nice person and have had a hard life. On the flip side, there is also the idea that being the nice guy doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for yourself. Early on, Caden is walking with Juliet (the love interest) and they are mugged. Caden knows that as the “nice” guy, he isn’t supposed to fight or be confrontational, but he does anyway because he knows he should be able to protect himself and Juliet. He knows he doesn’t have to let everyone walk all over him. You can be nice and still stand up for what is right, and protect yourself and others from harm. This subtle commentary wouldn’t have been possible if Dylan and Caden were truly their characters, and not just acting the part. My biggest complaint in regards to the actual love triangle is that we only see Caden’s perspective, so a lot of Dylan’s role as the “bad” boy is never shown. I would have loved to see more of Juliet’s interactions with Dylan, and how the LIC sets up those characters to succeed in winning over the intended love interest.
Yet, in a way, I’m glad that there weren’t multiple perspectives/POVs in this book. This book was attempting to do A LOT, so I think having more than one point of view would have just over-complicated things to the point where the book would either feel too short, or everything would just get muddled. I’ll go into detail with this more later, but while I appreciate what this book was trying to do, I felt that rather than commenting on EVERY issue in YA lit, it may have been better to focus on just a few and develop a stronger argument about them. Sort of an issue with quality over quantity with the commentary. The commentary that was there was good, but because there was so many different topics addressed, I felt like there wasn’t enough room to go in-depth on any of them. There were a lot of details and aspects that got a bit pushed to the side, and I think they could have (and should have) been more thoroughly developed.
One piece of commentary that this book did really well was the commentary on queer characters in YA lit. Dietrich is pretty open about his opinions on the treatment of queer characters in books and I’m really glad he used his platform as an author to explore these issues and showcase them in the novel. Many LGBTQIA+ characters in books that are being published are either minor side characters, token characters, or they get killed off. There was a big point made in this book that Caden, a queer boy, is the protagonist. He is the main character in this story, and there is no room for debate.
Another thing that was done really well is the plot. The book moves quickly, but not too fast so that it gets confusing. There is never a dull moment, and the fight for Juliet always feels high-stakes. A life is at stake, and that aspect of Caden and Dylan’s story doesn’t get pushed under the rug. It’s always there, lingering at the back of their minds, fueling their desperation as they each try to get closer to Juliet. On top of that, Dietrich also managed to throw in plenty of twists and turns that I wasn’t at all expecting. This made the plot even more engaging, and I never wanted to put the book down. The only point where the plot got a bit confusing was toward the end, which felt a bit rushed, but it wasn’t ever bad enough that I felt like I needed to reread a section.
The biggest complaint that I have was that the writing wasn’t particularly great. It definitely wasn’t terrible, but much of the dialogue felt a bit unrealistic and at times incredibly awkward. I can sort of see where this could have been intentional, as Caden and Dylan were raised without a lot of normal human interactions, so it makes sense that they wouldn’t be absolutely perfect conversationalists when they’re not following the scripts that have been written for them, but it felt a little bit overboard at times. Dialogue between teenagers can be awkward at times, but it isn’t always that way, and in order for readers to be able to relate to a book like this the dialogue has to be realistic, and at times it just wasn’t.
One complaint that I saw pop up in many of the reviews I read was that the world building is lacking. My response to this is similar to the response that many people have towards Kiera Cass’s The Selection series, which is largely based around the drama and “Bachelor”-style of the royal hierarchy. The Love Interest is a parody/commentary on tropes. This book isn’t meant to be the greatest dystopian novel ever written, and I think it’s wrong to expect Hunger Games or Game of Thrones-level world-building going into it. There are some plot holes and issues with the world-building, but this book just wasn’t trying to accomplish anything miraculous on that front. I think it’s important to suspend disbelief where the book requires or asks us to, not where we want to.
Well. This review ended up being ridiculously long, and I’m really proud of you if you stuck with me all the way to this point. Congratulations! You get a gold star. I do actually have some more thoughts on two problematic aspects of this book, but they are SUPER spoilery, so I’m actually going to add a section down below all this containing those thoughts if you’re feeling brave and want to check that out. Overall, I can see where a lot of the negative reviews are coming from. This book definitely isn’t perfect, but that didn’t stop me from really enjoying it anyway.
SPOILER SECTION OF MY REVIEW
Ok, so I’ll start off with my less-aggravating issue that I had with this book. The relationship between Natalie and Trevor. I wasn’t super thrilled with the normalization of cheating in their relationship. I don’t approve of cheating (defined by me as engaging in a relationship with more than one person when one or more people did not consent to a polygamous/polyamorous relationship), in absolutely ANY circumstance. It just isn’t ok in my book, and I don’t approve of treating it as something that is normal and something that can be easily brushed aside. The only reason that I gave this particular situation a bit of a past is because Natalie and Trevor’s relationship was based in a lie to begin with (since Natalie is a love interest). However, both of them agreed that their love had moved beyond that “lie” stage, and Natalie’s original indifference toward him had indeed moved into love. I don’t really think it’s that easy to get over the love of your life cheating on you.
My larger issue with this book is Dylan’s queer-baiting. I despise it even more because it could have been fixed with just a bit more dialogue added for clarification. We do get some hint from Juliet that he is indeed gay, despite his rejection of the notion, but it would have been so easy for some dialogue to be added explaining exactly WHY Dylan wanted to lie about his sexuality after all that time. He isn’t gay up until the final battle, and then miraculously in the epilogue he’s come out completely and is in a full-on relationship with Caden. That’s a pretty big plot point in my opinion, and I definitely think it deserved more attention than it got. I also don’t really like that Dylan’s sudden retreat back into the closet is used as a “plot twist”, especially without the explanation as to why he made that choice.