I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group for the review copy!
(Actual rating: 3.5 stars)
When I first heard the premise of The Love Interest, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy immediately. A novel about teen spies that pokes fun at the bad-boy-good-guy-love-triangle trope, and turns that trope on its head by having the two guys fall for each other? There was no way I could pass that up.
The Love Interest’s protagonist is Caden, a young man who’s spent his entire life being honed into a sweet, romantic, approachable “nice guy.” You know the type – the kind of guy who’s super cute in a clean-cut, non-threatening sort of way, who will bring you flowers, help you with your homework, charm your parents. The one who’s respectful, dreamy, and friendly. The kind of guy you think is way too good to be true – and, in Caden’s case, is.
Caden, you see, is no ordinary teenage boy. He’s an agent for a secret spy organization known as the Love Interest Compound, which trains kids to become either Nice guys or Bad boys. Once they’re through with training, these Nices and Bads are sent out into the world to compete for the affections of a Chosen, someone who is expected to become influential one day. The idea is that one of the Love Interests will win the Chosen’s heart, putting him in a position to mine the Chosen’s secrets, which the LIC will one day sell to the highest bidder.
What I Liked:
1) The tongue-in-cheek look at romantic stereotypes: Caden and his Bad rival, Dylan, are expected to adhere to the archetypal love interests portrayed in Young Adult fiction and teen romantic comedies. Dyl is required to act broody, tortured, dangerous, and scowly, whereas Caden is meant to be easy-going, good-natured, and supportive. Dyl is armed with a leather jacket and motorcycle; Caden’s supplied with a charmingly run-down pickup truck and a plethora of plaid button-downs. Even their physical attributes need to meet specific criteria:
“Bads can be as buff as they want, the bigger the better, actually. For a Nice, the aim of the game is lean. I need to look friendly and cute, but when I take my shirt off I need to be ripped. Just in an approachable way that doesn’t look like I work out much. Like these muscles happened accidentally, the result of playing outside with a golden Labrador or good genes or something like that.”
2) The fact that neither Caden nor Dyl fully fit their assigned personas: Part of what makes The Love Interest so entertaining is that watching Caden and Dyl play their respective roles is like watching someone try to fit square pegs into round holes. Being the laid-back, cheerful boy-next-door doesn’t come naturally to Caden, who has to bite back pissy retorts and refrain from ever asserting himself. Likewise, Dyl is too goofy and adorable to be a true Bad. It’s refreshing that he isn’t the quintessential tough guy, even though that’s exactly what he’s supposed to be. This disconnect between the characters’ required roles and their natural tendencies allows the book to play around with the tropes without getting mired in them.
3) The way the book flips gender expectations/stereotypes: As a woman, I found it fascinating to see the male characters in The Love Interest subjected to the sort of unrealistic expectations that women typically have to deal with. Dyl and Caden have to embody the ultimate fantasy boyfriends – even if it means going against their own desires and past their comfort levels. They’re treated like pieces of meat, constantly poked and prodded and critiqued, valued only for their looks and ability to adapt to whatever their Chosen wants. They get surgeries to alter their physical attributes so that their appearances match the Chosen’s tastes. They’re told their own opinions and interests don’t matter. Their diets are carefully monitored to ensure they keep their physiques drool-worthy. They put a lot of work into cultivating the right persona and image. All of this draws attention to the utter ridiculousness of living your life within the bounds of someone else’s opinions, which I found quite interesting.
“Her mother raises one hand and places her thumb under her chin, inspecting me like I’m a piece of art. Which I guess I am. All I’m missing is the doctor’s signature on my ass.”
What Could’ve Been Better:
1) The required suspension of disbelief: I had all sorts of questions about the logic behind the Love Interest Compound’s operations. Why teenage spies instead of adults? Why must the spies force themselves into stereotypes? Why are love interests always sent on missions in competing pairs, instead of going on solo missions? The author attempts to explain all of this in the beginning of the book, but I never entirely bought it. Several aspects of this story stretch credulity to its breaking point, though I was willing to overlook said aspects for the most part.
2) The plot holes: While I could mostly deal with the dubious nature of the book’s overall premise, there were a few plot points later on in the novel that nagged at me. For example, Caden is supposed to be posing as his Chosen’s childhood friend who moved away but has now come back several years later. I expected his Chosen to engage Caden in conversations about their shared history and catch him in a lie at some point, but she apparently never cares to bring it up. What about the questions she would’ve inevitably asked him about his family? Their old friends? His experiences while they were apart? I was also bothered by one of the plot twists in the second half of the book. It felt like was just done for dramatic effect and shock value, without really being needed or earned, and it was resolved so easily that it seemed superfluous.
3) The romance: While I had a fun time reading The Love Interest, I found myself wishing for a little…more. More drama, more edge, more physicality between Dyl and Caden. The book felt like it went by really quickly, and I would’ve liked to delve deeper into the relationships among Dyl, Caden, and their Chosen.
Although The Love Interest didn’t fully live up to my dreams of The Ultimate LGBT Love Triangle of Awesomeness, it still ended up being a fun read. Anyone looking to have a chuckle at YA archetypes’ expense should certainly give it a go.