Fans of angsty romance will be delighted with The Heart Principle, the third book in Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient series. While this book – and therefore this review – does contain spoilers for the first two novels, you do not have to read those to enjoy this story.
Quan Diep, older brother to the hero (Khai) from The Bride Test and cousin and best friend to the hero (Michael) from The Kiss Quotient, has beaten his testicular cancer but not without some permanent scars, both physical and emotional. One of the hurdles on his way back to normal is dating, something he used to take great joy in but hasn’t done in years. He’s not ready to get back into the full-blown girlfriend/boyfriend thing but on Michael’s advice, he decides to pick someone from a dating app to hook up with.
Violinist Anna Sun is on a leave of absence from her job. A YouTube video shot her to unanticipated fame and the result has been an incapacitating neurosis which has her caught between fan expectations and her own perceived inability to meet them. Naturally, this is the perfect moment for her longtime boyfriend Julian to announce he wants an open relationship. An understandably angry Anna warns him that if he dates others, she will too. He smirks confidently at her and says :
“I don’t think you’ll sleep with someone else. I know you, Anna. . . You don’t like sex.”
But Anna is resolved and places her photo on a dating app, with the tag,
“Looking to spend an uncomplicated evening with someone nice. Just one night, please.”
After scrolling through numerous non-starters for his own one-night stand, Quan comes across Anna’s profile. He likes her directness and the no-strings attached nature of what she is looking for and messages her. She responds immediately but the encounter isn’t what he expected. They end up watching the end of a documentary together via text, bonding over the sweetness of the film before deciding to meet up the next night.
Anna arrives at the agreed upon restaurant but when she sees Quan get off his motorcycle she panics, races to the bathroom and spends half an hour in a stall ignoring the many texts he sends. Once her phone goes silent, she risks sneaking out but of course runs into him in the hall as he heads to the men’s room. Anna apologizes before once more running away, but when Quan reaches out to check up on her, she responds. They wind up syncing their videos and texting as they watch another documentary and thus their relationship is launched.
I felt that, compared to the other two novels in the series, this story got off to the most romantic start. Somehow, Quan and Anna turn meeting through a dating app into a meet cute that is absolutely amazing. Equally charming is the arc taken by their love story. Quan is astonishingly patient with the skittish, painfully shy and awkward Anna. They never wind up having that one-night stand because Anna can’t bring herself to do it, and Quan delightfully works on building an emotional relationship with her before moving on to the physical. As in The Kiss Quotient, the hero’s patience and kindness make a huge difference to the heroine’s attitude towards sex. Anna blossoms due to Quan’s ability to dole out physical intimacy in a slow, measured manner that both lets her process her responses and gives her time to enjoy the experiences. I loved that their emotional and physical connections were in lock step, advancing together.
While the other two stories have some serious threads running through them, The Heart Principle is understandably the most poignant of the series. Quan is dealing with the aftermath of his illness, not just the physical changes to his body but the impact that will have on his future romantic relationships.
Anna’s plate is overflowing with trauma. Her neurosis/anxiety regarding her playing has essentially stripped her of her ability to work and taken away something she used to enjoy. Her family situation is difficult because her mother never wanted Anna to pursue a career in music, making it a point to tell her how impractical that was and how Anna’s inability to master any other skills left her vulnerable to being a complete failure. Her older sister Priscilla is controlling and manipulative, so she has no one to turn to for support among her relatives. Anna also feels like a fish out of water; she spends all her time trying to read other people and do whatever pleases them and feeling like she never gets it quite right. When her therapist diagnoses her with autism about halfway through the story, it is actually a relief for Anna to finally have a name for what has made her feel like an outsider her whole life.
All of that would have been enough for Quan and Anna to work through, but the last half of the book ups the angst factor considerably by having a family tragedy occur and forcing Anna to return to her parents’ home to be a caregiver to a close relation. Being there places Anna in constant proximity to her mom and Priscilla, the latter of whom makes it clear that Anna is far less than she should be – less smart, less capable, less strong. While Quan is everything that one could have hoped for in that situation – loving, supportive, unbelievably kind and caring – Anna gets buried in an avalanche of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion by the demands of caregiving under the hyper-critical eye of her family. It leads her – and those of us going through it with her – to a very grim place.
Naturally it puts a strain on the romance. Not just the fact that Anna is going through so much and Quan is trying to provide long distance (several hours away) support, but the fact that Anna’s family starts pushing him into ‘fling’ status and tries to force Anna to take back Julian. All told, this thirty percent or so of the book is super intense. And frankly, it lasts too long. Anna and Quan’s love story is nearly swallowed whole by Anna’s journey through some incredibly difficult, depressing life situations.
I’ve encountered this before in romance novels. Some authors seem to feel as though their couples have to earn an HEA by going through fire together and this book certainly does that. It feels somewhat incongruous that the sweet romance at the beginning and the lovely one at the end goes through such a difficult middle portion, but the author does a great job of tying her tale together. The length of Anna and Quan’s trial by fire is a bit too extended, but it does showcase that they are genuinely, deeply in love and will absolutely be able to survive any future tests to their relationship life throws at them.
Overt extended trauma aside, I enjoyed The Heart Principle. It’s deeper, darker and more serious than the first two books in the series at times, but readers who can take some pain with their pleasure will find a lot to love here.
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