Kris Ripper’s The Hate Project is a warm, quirky and often very funny romance with a difference – a grumpy/grumpy pairing – and I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a well-written mixture of snarky and poignant, and I loved the idiosyncratic and uncompromising voice of PoV character Oscar, whose anxiety and depression are presented in a way that feels very authentic. But while the book is a romance and there is a strong HFN, the overall balance is a little skewed in favour of Oscar’s navigating through life changes and the idea of being in a relationship, so that Jack – his love interest – feels a little distant and is less easy to know.
We first met the group of friends who term themselves the Marginalised Motherfuckers in last year’s The Love Study. Declan, Mason, Oscar, and Ronnie and Mia (who are a married couple) have known each other since college, but now their number is gradually expanding. In The Love Study, commitment-phobe Declan met and fell in love with Sydney (the host of a popular You Tube advice show of the same name) so Sydney is now an honourary Motherfucker, as is Jack whom Dec met at work and decided to invite to join them, too. Jack and Oscar pretty much hated each other on sight and never miss a chance to snipe and snark and bicker, so much so that their friends – not-so-jokingly – tell them to get a room!
Nobody is more surprised than they are when one night – they do.
Oscar has lived with anxiety and depression all his life, but he’s dysfunctionally functional – most of the time. When he loses his job – even though he hated it – it throws him off an already delicate balance, the thought of having to apply for jobs and potentially interview filling him with dread. The MFs rally round, throwing him an impromptu lost-your-job party, understanding his need to just be around them rather than interact with them. Somehow, he and Jack end up leaving the party at the same time and then heading back to Jack’s place; the sex is hot and steamy and, strangely, fun… but things end awkwardly with Jack almost immediately leaping out of bed and hustling Oscar back out to the car. It’s not that Oscar is interested in anything other than sex anyway, but still… Rude.
A few days later, Oscar is still jobless and not doing so well with the lack of routine or the prospect of job-hunting when Ronnie tells him that Jack has to clear out his grandparents’ house and could do with some help. All the MFs rally round to lend a hand at the weekend, but It turns out that Jack’s late grandfather was a hoarder (something which Jack is obviously embarrassed about) and the house needs a LOT more clearing out than they can do in a day. As Oscar needs to earn money while he’s looking for another job and Jack needs help clearing out the house to get it ready to sell and is prepared to pay someone to do it… just like that Oscar has a job. (And the possibility of turning their one-off into a more regular frenemies-with-benefits situation. Win.)
Oscar has good days and not-so-good days, but he finds himself kind of enjoying the work, and even taking pride in it, thoughtfully organising family papers and going above and beyond in many small ways. More than that though, it becomes impossible for him to continue to see Jack as simply the brusque, argumentative dickhead he’s always seen him as; going through the contents of the house Jack grew up in, Oscar can’t remain completely detached as he starts to learn more about him and understand him a little.
While Jack is less well-defined than Oscar, the author does a decent job of presenting him to the reader through Oscar’s eyes. He’s prickly and blunt and sometimes downright rude – but there’s a real sense that it’s a cover for what’s really underneath. It’s clear that he has a lot of emotional baggage associated with the house, stuff Oscar doesn’t know about (none of the MFs do), which brings home to Oscar just how little any of them know about Jack. The introduction of Jack’s feisty, no-nonsense grandmother to the mix serves to shed some more light on Jack’s past and on the guy he really is beneath his armour of sarcasm; he obviously adores Evelyn but is determined not to show it. Evelyn’s immediate inclusion of Oscar into their family group throws Oscar off balance slightly, but he soon finds himself enjoying her company – and being with Jack outside the bedroom, seeing another, slightly less jerkish side of him… well, that isn’t so bad either.
The days and weeks pass, and although neither had intended it, Oscar and Jack end up spending time together hanging out at the end of the day, eating together – and sometimes with Evelyn – and Oscar comes to realise, horror of horrors, that he might… actually… like Jack. And that isn’t something he bargained for or ever wanted.
There’s a lot to like about The Hate Project. Oscar is a terrific character with a very distinctive voice, and I really appreciated that the author doesn’t shy away from showing all the complications and contradictions that go along with severe anxiety and how hard Oscar has to fight some days just to open his eyes in the morning. I enjoyed his inner dialogue – which, admittedly, does meander a bit too much at times – and the self-awareness and raw honesty that show us so clearly how he sees himself. I also loved the way that his friends offer him such unwavering and unconditional support, how they respect his needs and wishes but are prepared to provide tough love if needed.
But because Oscar is such a brilliantly written, vividly realised character, his voice dominates the novel to such an extent that the romance feels unbalanced. I appreciated that, even when Jack isn’t present physically, he’s never far from Oscar’s thoughts, but he is nonetheless a little overshadowed by Oscar, and his issues – dating back to childhood – are strongly hinted at but never addressed in depth.
Despite that however, The Hate Project hooked me in from the first paragraph and kept me there until the last. The terrific banter, Oscar’s dark sense of humour, the diversity of the cast and the author’s frank and unsentimental treatment of mental health issues might not add up to a perfect read, but it’s well worth checking out if you’re looking for something a bit different to the norm.
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