Sure, The Love Study has a sweet couple whose romance I enjoy, but the way it examines the nature of love is even better.
First the setup – Declan abandoned his last boyfriend at the altar and has avoided dating for years, thinking that relationships are beyond him. His heart has healed in the meantime, though, and he might be ready to try meeting people again.
Enter Sidney. They’re a relationship advice YouTuber looking to start a new video series – The Love Study – and Declan is the perfect subject. Sidney will set him up on dates, and after each they’ll discuss what worked and what didn’t. But as they spend more time together, Declan realizes the only person he has chemistry with is Sidney.
Before I get into the review proper, some rep – Ripper is genderqueer and so is Sidney. Yes, the jacket copy says “nonbinary”, probably because it’s a more recognizable term, but in the book Sidney prefers “GQ” to “enby”. Declan has anxiety including panic attacks, but it’s not overly detailed and didn’t end up bothering me. There are also mentions of homophobia, transphobia, and racism.
The little things make me feel safe reading this book, and most boil down to respect. When Declan and Sidney make plans options are offered including the option to do nothing, no pressure. They brainstorm solutions, like when trying to figure out what to call each other – partner? lover? datemate? companion? They’re comfortable talking out their feelings, even when they don’t have all the words for them yet. This kind of respect should be the foundation of all relationships, not just intimate ones, and I love seeing it.
Related – Declan is used to spilling the beans about his sexual escapades to friends, but Sidney wants to keep things private and he respects that, even grows to like it after a while. Sidney’s wishes end up affecting us readers as well – this is a closed door romance, so there’s no explicit sex on the page.
The respect is great but my favorite thing about this book, hands down, is how it made me think about the nature of relationships. By watching Declan’s dates – never disasters, but always lacking somehow – Ripper examines what it means to be “romantic” and how different people have different definitions. Sidney laments how “romantic” gestures often have a gendered element, even in queer relationships – someone offering to pay for dinner, opening doors, giving chocolate on Valentine’s Day. That it feels more like playing a role than being genuine.
There are thoughtful discussions on whether dating is the best way to get to know someone, and the “goal” of relationships. Now that everyone can marry, should that be the universal goal? Is long-term commitment sufficient? Heck, is it necessary? How much are thoughts around queer marriage are bound up with it being not only a personal statement, but also a political one?
In examining these issues Ripper is also taking a meta look at the Happily Ever After in romance. Many books end with a marriage or similar, but can the main characters simply like each other a lot and have that count as an HEA? There were times that I would put the book down and stare off into space, thinking about everything Ripper is laying down.
As much as I love this book there are a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me. I would have preferred a higher heat level, while recognizing that it would have brought a genderqueer character’s genitals into the conversation, which is never ever a requirement. There’s a found family element but it felt a bit forced to me. Then again, I think that dynamic takes a couple of books to develop. And the ending was… fine. A bit predictable, not bad, just fine.
If you are a thematic reader, if you would like to examine the nature of love and relationships, and if you are looking for a comfortable, safe space to go in these uncertain times, there’s nothing better than The Love Study. I’m an instant fan of Ripper and can’t wait to dive into zir backlist.
Thanks to Carina Press for providing a review copy.