Book Review: Love, in Theory by Elodie Cheesman

TL;DR – a romantic comedy for the 2020s. Romy, not having seriously dated for two years, decides to jump back in using theories developed by psychologists, mathematicians and researchers to find love.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Romy, an unusual, thoughtful 24-year old with a deep desire for rational thinking, decides to embrace science and statistics to find the ideal guy. She uses ‘optimal stopping theory’ to calculate that she is at the age where if she meets a guy that is better than all the previous men she has dated then he is likely to be the one she can build a life with.

She meets James who she has chemistry and spark with but ticks many of the boxes that are similar to her previous ex-boyfriends and doesn’t want to fall into the same trap of basing a relationship solely on a bonfire that will eventually flame out.

She then meets Hans who ticks all the relationship theoretical science boxes that she has set out for herself, but she can’t help noting that there is no initial bonfire that burns as deeply as what she experiences with James.

Who will she choose?

Review

‘Optimal stopping theory’ is a genuine mathematical theory that examines when it is an appropriate time to take an action to maximise reward or minimise cost. While the theory has been applied to statistics, finance and economics, it is with one particular problem that this novel is based on. The problem goes by many names including ‘the marriage problem’ and the ‘fussy suitor problem’.

In short, the problem surrounds when it is best to choose a partner and using the optimal stopping theory, one can calculate at what age based on your ‘expected dating life’ you should go about choosing a partner that you can live ‘happily ever after’ with. The magical number based on this formula is 37%.

This means, hypothetically, if you started dating at 18 years and wanted to settle down by 35 then that is a 17-year dating span. 37% of 17 is 6.29. Add 6.29 years to 18 and you get 24.29 years as the age that is your optimal stopping point.

It just so happens that Love in Theory‘s main character, Romy, is 24 years old and thus in theory, she should choose the next guy who is better than all the previous guys she has dated for the best chance of settling down with ‘Mr. Right’. Thus begins Romy’s dating escapades after not having seriously dated anyone for a couple of years. A different type of clock, not biological, starts inside her as she goes about finding someone based on the fact she has reached her optimal stopping point.

Whether you believe in the theory or not, Elodie Cheesman’s tale of finding the perfect match will likely propel young readers of romance (older readers who have experienced that relationships require work will probably not). Cheesman utilises all the current day mechanics that people use when they are trying to meet people (i.e. Tinder, Bumble, and other social networking or match-making apps). Romy’s introspection is reflective of a 24-year old who is a deep thinker, and the people she meets have a wide range of personalities that ensures she goes through the bores, the cringes, the narcissists in equal measure. Eventually her path crosses with two potential suitors: James and Hans.

In many ways, the character of Romy is deeply flawed. There is nothing wrong with this as characters that are flawed make for interesting reading. However, I do not know if certain flaws were intended by Cheesman. It certainly does not feel intentional. Romy comes off as an intellectual with a deep desire to scientifically analyse her love life and how she goes about searching for the ideal partner. She buys into the ‘optimal stopping theory’, attends an ‘intelligent dating’ class and is presented with research into relationships including a 2010 paper by mathematician Peter Backus entitled “Why I Don’t Have a Girlfriend”.

Backus calculated the odds of meeting someone who met all the traits that he was looking for in an ideal partner and came to the bleak probability of finding such a person on any given night out was only 0.0000034% chance. Through the ‘intelligent dating’ class, Romy is asked to identify three key traits (only three because the more traits you want ticked off in a partner will reduce the probability of finding someone dramatically. Just ask Mr Backus) and choose these three traits to create a relationship based on mutual liking (not lust or intense love, but liking).

Romy chooses the following:

  • ‘low novelty-seeking’ which means someone who is not always searching for something new. Romy reflects that her previous boyfriends were a combination of high extroversion, high openness and low conscientiousness, which made for a fun and spontaneous partner in the early days of the relationship, but also someone who was more likely to get bored and move on.
  • ’emotionally stable’ being someone who does not react intensely negative when things become difficult.
  • ‘agreeableness’ being someone who is ‘nice’. Nice people are generally kinder and better at intimacy.

From this approach, I felt strongly that here is a young woman who believes in rationality and using scientific research in finding the ideal partner (whether I agree with such an approach is beside the point, Romy’s personality is distinct and for the purposes of the story that is what matters). However, Cheesman then has two male characters in James and Hans that are Romy’s primary focus and while she reminds herself of the three traits she is looking for, it becomes apparent that for all her rationality she still wants the ‘magic’, the ‘spark’ or whatever other romantic trope you want to use.

Again, this is not necessarily an issue. Love in Theory, after all, is meant to be a romantic comedy. But I could not help rolling my eyes at how Cheesman goes about describing James and Hans.

Hans is tall, blonde, blue-eyed German with a ‘Statue of Liberty nose’, a strong jaw, wide smile with dimples. Might as well have described him as a ‘German prince’.

James is described at one point as wearing a white T-shirt and dark jeans that makes him look like James Dean or perhaps James Franco playing James Dean.

Look, I get it. We often judge books by their cover even if we say we don’t. First impressions make a difference, and I’m not saying Romy should date a guy she is not physically attracted to. But really no matter how much Cheesman tries to show the two male leads as having depth (and their own flaws), Romy still wants all the shine and physical sparkle as much as the rest of us. So, for all of her rationality, logic, and ‘scientific’ approach to finding someone, it was disappointing to me that the men she desires are Hollywood stereotypes in the looks department.

The fact Romy reflects deeply on her previous boyfriends, all charming, charismatic and good-looking and subsequently dates James and Hans who fit the same mould was disappointing. The only male character that presents themselves physically as flawed is Romy’s boss Graeme (for whom she is not attracted to in the slightest). Would it have detracted from the romantic comedy theme if the two male leads had physical flaws? I would like to think not. If anything I would have felt it would lend to a more authentic story and perhaps aligned better with the idea that Romy has learned from her past relationships and now applying her rational, analytical mind.

Was this intentional by Cheesman? I don’t know. But looks of the male leads aside, the story moves along to the conclusion we all suspect. That is, you can read all the science and statistics you want, but in the end love is more than this.

Romy is like a pendulum, she swings to the extremes applying theories to finding someone, she finds that person in Hans, and then swings to the other end, unable to deny her attraction to James and throws out all the theories. There is no balance in the delivery as the ending rushes in the final couple of chapters that has Romy having a supposed epiphany after being told by Alexandra (neuroscientist and Romy’s aunt) that the science of relationships can be cast aside if you feel that ‘magic’. She then rushes over to see James and confesses that she has been ignoring what they have and wants to be with him. And it should be noted that this is after things have ended with Hans through Romy’s own fault.

I found it a disappointing read because in the end, the book is lauded as being perceptive about love and relationships but ends up following a path well trodden. It’s Sleepless in Seattle where Meg Ryan’s character dumps Bill Pullman’s nice-guy character for Tom Hank’s character whom she feels the magic spark with.

Cheesman tries to offset this by describing two other important couples close to Romy: her parents and about-to-marry couple, Mara and Angus. We learn for both of these couples, their love blossomed from liking and the guy being ‘nice’ as opposed to a ‘love at first sight’ experience with explosions and fireworks.

Still, for all of her ruminations, thoughtful introspection, research and reading, her apparent belief in the science to create a relationship that will go the distance gets thrown out the window, and she ends up going with her gut in James as has happened with her previous ex-boyfriends. The book ends with her saying she has a ‘magnificent hunch’ that this time it will be different.

And perhaps it will be different, but as a romantic comedy it doesn’t say anything different. Listen to your heart instead of your head is the end message even though this book seeks to break out of all the Hollywood brainwash about ‘happily ever after’.

Had the inciting incident that wrecked Romy’s relationship with nice-guy Hans led to her actually trying to fight to get him back, and this in turn would lead to her choosing Hans over James… now that would have been different and broken out of the Hollywood rom-com mould. But alas, the formula has been set.

It is sad to think that hope fulfilled cannot stem as much from the head as it can from the heart (or at least, from a balance between the two). I guess that just doesn’t make as good a story and is not as sexy.

2 out of 5.

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