Book Review

The Love Study by Kris Ripper

With thanks to Tara.

The Love Study is a romance between Declan, who swore off romance after leaving his boyfriend at the altar six years ago, and Sidney, who has no interest in dating, but who does have a YouTube channel called ‘Your Spinster Uncle’ where they provide relationship advice. (Sidney is gender nonconforming and prefers they/them pronouns). Declan might be commitment-phobic, but he is also 29 and beginning to wonder if he would, in fact like to be in a relationship after all. And Sidney has just the solution – a weekly program on their channel where they send Declan on dates, and then discuss his experiences on the show.

You know where this is going, right? The dates are, for the most part, fine, but it quickly becomes clear that the person who Declan really wants is Sidney. And that Sidney’s ‘no dating’ rule may actually be less a rule than a guideline.

Of course, Sidney’s YouTube commenters are onto this before either Declan or Sidney are:

“Uh-oh. They’re going feral on me again.”

“What does that mean?”

They shook their head and turned off the monitor. “Any time I have a likeable guest on more than once, they decide that guest is my one true love. I don’t know if you plan to read the comments, but if you do, just ignore them. They’ll stop eventually.”

I couldn’t help wondering what that meant. “How, um, how do they express this fascination?” And are you repulsed? Not that I thought I was anyone’s one true anything, but I couldn’t get a read on if they found the idea of me magnetically repelling or what.

“Ship names.” They sighed.

“No. Way.”

“Oh yes. In my extremely cursory look it appeared that Sidlan was beating out Decney. For good reason.”

“Deck-knee. Oh my god.”

“Yep.” They gestured wryly at the monitor. “Behold my public. But seriously, ignore them and they’ll eventually stop.”

Spoiler: they don’t stop. In fact…

“Hashtag-Sidlan is one of the most popular comments on The Love Study videos. I’m not kidding.”

“Wow. They…are they missing the point a little?”

“That depends on what you think the point is. For a generation still watching Disney movies well into their twenties, the point might actually be for you to live happily ever after in partnered bliss, in which case I suppose they’re pursuing that goal with the means they have available.”

I laughed. “And that means is YouTube comments?”

“It’s making me happy I never started a Twitter account. Though there has been some…um…I guess you’d call it ‘fan art’ on Instagram.”

I find it very sad that this story is not illustrated with Sidlan fan art, is all I’m saying here.

I found this story pretty adorable. Declan and Sidney have lovely chemistry and are both the sort of people who think way too much and trip over their own brains as a result. Their conversations are funny and awkward and frank and innuendo-laden and also quite intense, because everything has to be examined from every possible angle. I cannot adequately express just how much these two are overthinkers of everything. I am a pretty big fan of overthinkers, but there were times when even I felt that they were up in their own heads a little bit too much. However, they made up for this by being extremely funny – I was giggling a lot through this story.

I also liked all the low key hanging out together they did. There are so many lovely scenes of Declan puttering around preparing food while Sidney edits videos or monitors YouTube comment threads, or one of them reading while the other one decompresses after work, or just enjoying being in each other’s space with no real pressure to Do Things Together.

Declan has a circle of friends, ‘The Marginalized Motherfuckers’, that is basically a big, queer, multiracial found family:

We’d called ourselves the Marginalized Motherfuckers as a joke because for a while in college every conversation we had revolved around… marginalization. Which doesn’t sound like fun, and we wouldn’t do that again, but I think it was probably a developmental stage we all had to go through. And it brought us together as a family in a way that talking about, I don’t know, Kant or chemistry or something probably wouldn’t have.

This found family also includes Mason – the ex-boyfriend he left at the altar – who is now basically his best friend, though things between them were rocky for a while. This made me happy, because it runs beautifully counter to the jealous ex narrative. And speaking of non-traditional narratives, Declan and Sidney meet when one of Declan’s friends, who is an inveterate matchmaker and works with Sidney at their dayjob, introduces them to Declan as a possible romantic partner for Declan’s ex-fiancé, Mason. Because of course you want the best friend to vet the prospective date, even if that friend is also the ex-fiancé. (Fortunately, neither Mason nor Sidney have any romantic interest in each other, so the dreaded Love Triangle of Great Drama is avoided.)

Sidney is more of a loner on the surface, but they have long-standing online friendships with the people who have been viewing their channel for years. Again, I really loved this recognition that friendships that we form online with people we may never have seen in real life are real and valid and meaningful – I think that’s exceptionally important to remember right now.

The book is told entirely from Declan’s perspective, which is not always comfortable. Declan’s issues around commitment are rather all-embracing; not only does he not date, but he works as a temp, and has a tendency to flee for the hills at any sign that someone might try to offer him a permanent contract. At one point he reluctantly takes on a six week contract, and is given a key to his office, and nearly hyperventilates with anxiety, until his boss offers to fire him if he doesn’t return the key within 24 hours of his contract ending. The fact that this works…says quite a lot about him (and the fact that his boss realises that this will work says quite a lot about her – Deb has been sneakily trying to keep him on staff for some time).

Anxiety is also a pretty big thing for Declan, and that doesn’t really change over the course of the book, though he does acknowledge it and start to get a bit more help with it later in the book (though not until he has used it to blow things up in a big way). His friends’ upcoming wedding is a huge source of anxiety to him, as he starts thinking about his own aborted wedding to Mason – they have some lovely conversations around this during the book, but one thing which really struck me was when Declan was thinking about that moment when same-sex marriage finally became legal and so of course there was this feeling that this was the thing they needed to do (and a whole extra dose of guilt for not going through with it, of course).

Mostly I was thinking about […] how great it would have been for me to have seen a queer therapist after the whole attempted-wedding-freak-out thing. Not that my straight AF therapist had been bad! She’d been nice! But I didn’t think she’d totally understood the, like…cultural phenomenon that was suddenly being allowed to get married. It was 2015, it was legal, everyone was doing it, so it seemed like we might as well. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Mason. I loved him a lot. I loved him so much that I failed to realize until it was too late that I didn’t really want to get married at all.

I’m cis and mostly straight; there’s never been a moment in my life when I even had to think about whether I would be allowed to marry the person I loved. It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of pressure that sudden permission, that opportunity to prove that your relationship was ‘real’ in some way that society recognised, could put on a relationship. But this story did a good job of exploring how this interacts with Declan’s anxiety and commitment issues.

Speaking of which, the bleak moment is pretty bleak, and was also signalled in giant rainbow neon lights from very early on in the book, but I’ll put it behind a spoiler anyway.

Show Spoiler

Astonishingly, Declan’s commitment issues do not disappear just because he is in love with Sidney. And so naturally he wigs out after his friends’ wedding and does the classic break-up-with-you-for-your-own-good-because-I-will-let-you-down-eventually-so-let’s-get-it-over-with dance. I found this painfully realistic, but honestly, the anticipation was almost worse than the event itself because I could see it coming for chapters and chapters in advance and was just READING IN DREAD until it did.

One drawback of having Declan as the first person viewpoint character is that we only ever see Sidney from the outside. This felt both frustrating and appropriate – Sidney has perfected the art of being a mirror, and this is what makes them so good at drawing their interview guests out and helping them disentangle their emotions and relationship troubles. (We don’t know if Sidney ever studied to be a therapist; they may just have picked up some tricks from their experience on the other side of that dynamic. But I certainly recognised some of their tactics from my own training in crisis counselling.) It does, however, also make Sidney rather enigmatic to the reader. Charming, yes, and funny, and awkward, and direct, and deeply kind – I really liked Sidney! – but on reflection, I’m not sure I really got a good read on what they wanted from this relationship or from life generally. This is less of a failing than it might be, in terms of story, because it also felt in keeping with Sidney’s personality that we didn’t get to see inside their head. Sidney is quite a private person in some ways, and I don’t think they would like us seeing their private thoughts, unmediated by carefully chosen words!

On a parallel note, I thought it was an interesting and appropriate choice to make the sex scenes in this book closed door. Sidney never states their gender except to say that they prefer they/them pronouns, but don’t identify as non-binary. They also mention that body dysmorphia can be a thing for them during sex. So it felt nicely respectful to Sidney that we never see them naked on the page – it’s a reminder that Sidney’s genitals and the sex assigned to them at birth are absolutely none of my business.

The Love Study is funny, sweet, clever, and maybe slightly self-conscious. I spent about a third of the book going ‘awww’ and another third giggling in delight. As for the other third… look, as a rather anxious person myself, I found Declan’s viewpoint realistic but also a stressful and even a bit sad – his anxiety is quite self-destructive, and while it was lovely to see him getting help and overcoming some of his issues in the latter part of the book, it wasn’t fun watching him break things so spectacularly first.

Back on the positives, I liked that this story championed unconventional families, friend groups, and romantic relationships. There is a definite happy-ever-after in this book, but it takes a form that I haven’t seen in a novel before – but it’s one that I think is necessary given the way Sidney and Declan work. If you are looking for a fluffy, queer romance that is frank about mental illness, celebrates unconventional relationships, and is very big on talking about feelings, I think you’ll enjoy this a lot.

(Also, sometimes they decorate dinosaur cookies. This is important information.)

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The Love Study by Kris Ripper

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  1. I had decided to at least try a sample of this book by the second paragraph of this review, but by the time I read “they decorate dinosaur cookies” I was sold. One-click! 🙂

    Thanks so much for the lovely review!

  2. Qualisign says:

    “READING IN DREAD.” Talk about a perfect descriptor of my primary nope-ifier for books these days. Now that you’ve put it out there, it’s going to become a permanent phrase in my list of “just can’ts” right now. Excellent review; just too anxious generally to work through the dread.

  3. Carrie G says:

    Great review,thank you. I’ll put this on my want-to-read-when-stress-levels-decrease book list. I have family members living at home with big anxiety issues, as well as my own to deal with, so this might be a little too close to home right now. But I DO want to read it, it sounds wonderful on many levels.

  4. chacha1 says:

    My own anxiety levels fluctuate (perimenopause hormones + work stress, anyone?) but they are sufficiently With Me Always that it’s bled into my own writing. Which means I am interested in seeing how other writers deal with it. A lot of other things about The Love Study sound like catnip, so I’m adding it to my wishlist for the next time my levels ebb.

  5. Lisa F says:

    This sounds like a delight; putting it on my TBR pile. Great review, Catherine Heloise!

  6. cleo says:

    Perfect timing – I just finished this and was hoping to talk about it. I agree with this review – the flirting, the friend group, the self conscious overthinking, the anxiety, the general adorableness of the two of them together. And I was so annoyed by the dark moment. I’m generally annoyed by dark moments and this one was particularly annoying. And I loved their solution.

    Of all the queer romance authors I read, I think Kris Ripper is one of the best at creating believable queer communities and friend groups. Zir characters feel more like real people I personally might encounter than like romance stock characters. I like that ze writes books that cis and straight people can relate to but I love that ze doesn’t get (too much) into queer 101 type explanations. I appreciated the lack of “as you know Bob, queer folx tend to stay friends with exes” type asides. (Either you know that and chuckle at Dylan’s dig at all of Mia’s and Ronnie’s exes coming to their wedding, or you pick it up from the context.) I did think ze laid it on a little thick with the “queer people can create their own relationship narratives” message but that didn’t seem aimed at non LGBTQ+ readers.

    One correction – Sidney identifies as genderqueer so I don’t think it’s accurate to say Sidney never states their gender. (Non Binary is different than genderqueer, or it can be)

  7. cleo says:

    @cleo – Declan not Dylan

  8. @cleo – thanks for the correction re Sidney. I knew they didn’t identify as non-binary, but I couldn’t find where they said how they did identify.

  9. Trio says:

    I loved this one, great review!

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