Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann (Goodreads)
Rep: black bisexual lead, Asian male love interest. Asexual topic.
This book was chosen for a book club I am part of, but I was already interested in it because of the diverse cast and the featured topic of asexuality. During our meeting, we discussed this book from the fluff to its bones, trying to figure out why it didn’t work for many of us. From an unlikeable protagonist, unrealistic plot issues, and dysfunctional relationships throughout the novel, we reached a consensus that this book could have done a lot more with the prime material it had to work with.
** There will be an obvious spoiler in this review **
Alice gets dumped by her girlfriend right before finals because she “doesn’t like sex.” Dejected, she retreats to her friends Feenie and Ryan’s house for the summer and works her library job. When she meets new-hire Takumi, she has an instant crush. But how can she navigate a relationship with Takumi when she has no interest in sex? Alice must figure out how to find the right balance within her tumultous family life — as her strict parents insist she become a lawyer — and her love life — where she’s not sure if she will ever find anyone to love her the way she is comfortable.
This book had everything going for it, and yet…
I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m an adult woman reading YA (as is the rest of my book club). I am profoundly grateful that authors are discussing topics (and writing for our youth!) that have not received much attention in years past. When I think about how there’s a romance book for trans people written by a trans woman (If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo), discusses police-on-black-violence by a black woman (The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas), and so on, I’m amazed that the youth of today get to read and experience so much through the lens of people who weren’t visible when I was a teen reader.
This is (I think) the first book with an asexual character I’ve read; it’s primarily about a woman trying to reconcile her asexuality with her romantic life. Is it an issues book? Should we be talking about asexuality in depth? Or is this supposed to be a fluffy fantasy story about an asexual person finding a good fit for her wishlist of romance?
Our book club discussed the fact that this book came out with Swoon Reads, which is more on the fantasy side of things. Since SR is primarily vote-based, it seems like this book was picked for publication because a lot of people were interested in the premise and the romance, not necessarily the depth of the representation. I feel like, since asexuality is so rare to read about, this book shoulders some of the responsibility of educating us about it. Alice (the MC) discusses her asexuality, but we don’t see what “ace” looks or feels like to others. A lot of attention is focused on Alice and her therapist discussing her ace, so it would’ve been nice if there’d been a group therapy session or something similar so that others could talk about how their ace feels. I didn’t expect this book to do my homework for me, but I did want a little more of a general idea of asexuality and the community instead of only learning about Alice.
I think it’s important to note that at the end of If I Was Your Girl, the author mentions that she knows Amanda (her MC)’s story is very neatly packaged — Amanda passes for a girl, she likes boys, her parents are supportive, etc. — but that every trans person’s story won’t follow the same format and that every trans person’s experience is just as valid as Amanda’s. I wish Claire Kann had done the same at the end of Let’s Talk About Love, if only to heighten the visibility given to readers who may be ace.
The weird, quirky narrator
The book was written in third person, but the narrator was an extra voice that felt like it should’ve been in first person. Every page had a cute, quirky remark placed within parentheses. Among the folks in the book club, everyone found this device to be too cutesy and distracting.
Alice and Takumi
Alice is a self-proclaimed asshole, and I would agree with that assessment. She is just selfish and annoying, and I really wish she’d been written a little bit softer so that I could actually like her. There are plenty of books with asshole main characters that I actually can empathize with and root for, even characters that are worse than Alice, but Alice felt very flatly assholish to many of us discussing this book. It wasn’t lost on a lot of us that Alice’s “Cutie Code” is a code that she uses to rank not just cute things like puppies or comics, but also humans. Blegh.
Takumi is such a sweetheart, though possibly too accommodating. We were dissatisfied with the ending when (spoiler alert)
he tells Alice he is willing to be in a romantic relationship with her, without the sex.
I really wish that there had been more discussion about how this relationship would work. It seems like a really big part of a relationship to compromise on, especially after Takumi had mentioned how important sex was to him in romantic relationships. Because this is an unusual relationship where one of the partners will not get the physical satisfaction from the other, would a polyamorous relationship come into the picture? Alice is not a virgin and her story mentioned how she’d engage in sex for the pleasure of her relationship partners without joy in it herself, before she swore off having any sex at all ever again, but would she compromise that rule for a person she loved dearly and was in a long-term relationship with (Takumi)? Or would Takumi have to take care of it on his own?
Side plots: what *are* these relationships?
Putting aside the romantic relationship between Alice and Takumi… we have to talk about the relationships between Feenie, Ryan, and Alice; Alice and her parents; and Alice and her siblings. None of the relationships in this book seemed healthy.
Feenie and Ryan are engaged and living together, and Alice becomes their third roommate. That’s fine; situations like this are normal. It’s the weird, antagonistic relationship with Feenie that gave me pause. Their friendship seemed strained the entire time; Feenie did not seem like a good listener and Alice was not a good communicator. Then there’s also a weird codependency on Ryan as their mediator, and all in all we were wondering why they were still friends in the first place.
Alice’s family was also weird: her parents are lawyers and have money, so she is supported financially. When Alice finally tells them she doesn’t want to go to law school, they withdraw their financial support, and Alice tells her friends that she’s been disowned. It was a huge leap from “not supporting your decision with our money” to “you are not part of this family.” Alice complains that people conflate romantic love and sex, but then she conflates her parents’ love for her and money; that because they withdrew their financial support, they no longer love her. And then she doesn’t learn anything from this. Her dad is the softie and comes back and says he’ll keep paying her rent. Mmk.
Alice is the accident-baby, so her siblings are both about twenty years older than she is. It was super weird hearing these 40-year-old brother and sister acting as extra arms for their parents’ reach. Alice’s sister was just as adamant about Alice going to law school as their mother. The whole vibe was super weird.
Ultimately, nothing really *worked*
Overall, this was somewhat of a disappointment of a great premise and a potentially great cast of characters. I wish there’d been more about having aged parents (Alice’s folks are in their 70s) besides them being strict about law school. I wish there had been more discussion about how a relationship would work without sex. This book felt very judgmental towards sex, actually. Alice’s ex is painted as a bad apple because she enjoys sex and has had multiple partners; Feenie and Alice get into a big argument because Feenie and Ryan abandoned Alice at a party to go have sex… I wish that, had there been a conflict between Feenie/Ryan and Alice regarding abandonment issues it would have to do with anything besides sex.
All that said, I am glad there is a book about asexuality that is popular and making the rounds. I just… wish it was not this one. 2.5/5 stars.