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Intimacy Is Nothing To Be Ashamed Of In Helen Hoang's Powerful New Romance


In a time when social media platforms like TikTok have made it shockingly easy for content to go viral (search for the "Watermelon Sugar" Hi! pet trend, you'll thank me later), Helen Hoang's The Heart Principle answers the question: What happens when the fame you never wanted is keeping you from actually having a career you love?

When Anna Sun, a professional violinist, goes viral on YouTube for a performance, it changes her life forever ... but not for the reasons she anticipates. Not only does she get musician's block, it's clear her family and her boyfriend Julian don't understand – so she decides to go to therapy. When Julian decides he wants an open relationship before he agrees to settle down, Anna, who is tired of pleasing everyone but herself, goes on a dating app and meets our leading man Quan Diep — who readers may recognize from Hoang's previous books. "Stop masking. Stop people pleasing. Revenge on Julian. Learn who I am. Self empowerment," Anna says at one point, reminding herself to go through with the plan.

What was supposed to be a no-strings-attached one-night stand, however, turns into a tangled tapestry of heady makeout sessions, watching animal documentaries together, and divulging the kinds of secrets that border on couple territory, which have both characters reconsidering their decision to use sex as a BandAid for their inner turmoil. For one, Anna has intimacy issues and has never had a one-night stand before. And Quan, who recently recovered from a serious illness, has his own body image insecurities. But together, they understand each other in a way no one else has tried or cared enough to and thus, a new kind of intimacy blooms between them, in true Hoang fashion.

If The Kiss Quotient teaches intimacy and The Bride Test nurtures it, then The Heart Principle pushes its characters not to be ashamed by it. It's only when Anna and Quan stop putting pressures on themselves that they can truly let go in every sense. I would've loved to see Quan and Anna step outside their bubble and interact in more social settings together, but it feels just as good to see them learn about each other without external influences (although her family certainly tries).

It's a little on the nose to say that Hoang's new romance is sex-positive, but it's important to show how she neutralizes the social pressures around physical intimacy. When Anna says no to a sexual act, she thinks that it "might be the hardest thing I've ever done. But I did it. Part of me is still queasy from how unnatural it felt. Another part of me, however, is drunk with power."

The social pressures go beyond intimacy too. When Anna learns that she may be autistic, Quan is the one who's there for her, while her sister dismisses it as a plea for attention. And after a personal tragedy sends Anna home to a family that loves her but struggles to understand her, Quan is the one who becomes her safe haven and helps her through an autistic burnout. But when her family has other plans for her, which don't include Quan, she needs to figure out how to follow her heart and speak up for herself.

It's an emotional journey, but a fulfilling one to watch Anna and Quan not only reconcile with the limits of their bodies and health but wield enough power to stand up for themselves.

Perhaps one of the hardest parts of reading this book is the visceral reaction to seeing other people mistreat Anna and Quan because of their differences. We want to protect them while we collectively bemoan their loss of agency. So much of the story manifests the act of grieving. There is the literal grieving of a family member, but there's also the mourning over loss of self and identity — Quan for the life he had before his illness and Anna for the person she could've been, had she gotten proper support earlier in life.

But like the final stage of grief, acceptance isn't too far off for these characters. It's an emotional journey, but a fulfilling one to watch Anna and Quan not only reconcile with the limits of their bodies and health but wield enough power to stand up for themselves. In fact, it's evident that while Anna's autism is a turning point for her, it's not meant to define her or the story; if anything, it's just the missing puzzle piece that lets her fully love herself without a nagging sense of uncertainty. "No one should need a diagnosis in order to be compassionate to themselves ... Maybe for now, just this once, I can experiment with a different kind of love. Something kinder."

Having read all three of Helen Hoang's books, I can confidently say she's a consummate wordsmith of soulful romances, with soft, honest-to-goodness love stories paired with euphoric steaminess. The Heart Principle wears its heart on its sleeve. While it's thematically heavier than her previous books, Hoang's writing breathes with the kind of kinetic power and acceptance that feel freeing because she lets her characters fully realize themselves — even when those around them can't.

Kamrun Nesa is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, Bustle, PopSugar, and HelloGiggles.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kamrun Nesa