The Love Interest / Cale Dietrich
This book is a painful reminder that you can’t always get what you want. I really wanted to love this book. I love the cover, and I love the premise: a a young adult spy romance with a gay twist starring two men surgically altered to be perfect physical specimens. Excellent! Bring it on! After reading two novels by Paul Russell, I really needed something light and bright and sparkling. (Compared to Paul Russell, though, the farthest reaches of the Marianas Trench are light and bright and sparkling, but I digress.)
Let us begin, as many reviews do, with a brief summary: the LIC is a centuries-old, international organization that deals in information. They are secret, of course, and they work by sending two young adults, a Nice and a Bad, to woo Very Important People, such as young Juliet, a brilliant technological mind. Caden is her Nice; Dylan is her bad — one will win her heart, and the other will die, as death by incineration is the punishment for losing. The twist here, of course, is that the two Love Interests fall for each other instead of the girl.
So far, so good, right? As I opened that gorgeous cover, I thought so, too, but almost immediately I realized something didn’t sit well with me: I just didn’t buy it. I didn’t buy any of it. I didn’t buy the LIC as an institution, I didn’t buy President Snow Mr. Craike as its head, I didn’t buy any of the LIC policies, such as executing the failed Love Interest, I didn’t buy the binary opposition of the Nice and the Bad personality types. The only thing I bought is that Caden is super-hot. I bought this, I think, because there are at least a dozen references to his pecs, biceps, or abs within the first few pages of the text… indeed, there are such references to the muscles of everyone in the LIC compound, which I imagine as a sort of softcore porn abercrombie store… which is only slightly creepy, considering how young some of the kids are in the compound.
Let me stop here and assure you that I am not one of those people who go into a new movie or book looking for the holes. I have absolutely no problem with the suspension of disbelief. In fact, I tend to suspend even when I shouldn’t. But this is a great example of how important those first few pages of any novel are: Because the first few pages of The Love Interest presented so many things that didn’t seem to hold water, I spent the rest of the novel looking for more leaks. And let me tell you, this novel is basically a sieve. To any aspiring writers out there, I want to emphasize this again: you must must must must get us to buy into your story, your characters, and your plot within the first few pages of the story or we will not be on your side for the rest of it. Once you have us, though, it’s much, much harder to lose us.
Despite my dislike of the first few chapters, I kept reading. I thought, perhaps, that the book was a satire: of the superficiality of love, because of how the narration refuses to let us forget how freaking hot Caden and Dylan are; of the Nice Guy/Bad Guy trope, because the entire premise of using such polar opposites is so bizarre; of spy movies in general, because… well, because it’s a spy novel. But the tone never shifts to satire. It takes everything way too seriously, and so all these things I just mentioned feel more and more overblown and exaggerated and ludicrous. For instance — and these are big spoilers here! — what sort of strategic information is an international spy agency going to get from a world-class high school swimmer? What sort of international spy agency is going to assume an ‘I love you’ from a high schooler is forever? What sort of international spy agency is going to be completely derailed by five high-schoolers and their half-baked plan?
I believe this is one of Cale Dietrich’s first novels, if not his debut. As a beginning author myself, I hate writing such a negative review, particularly because the writing itself is actually quite well done and the premise — the very basic premise — is so promising. I wish he had spent more time developing the LIC and the complications that keep Caden and Dylan apart; too much of what we have here feels sloppy. (For instance, some sort of brain-implant technology that allows for telepathic communication between the Love Interest and his Coach… but that can be easily, albeit painfully, cut out by your average high schooler with absolutely no repercussions. So much of the novel felt like deus ex machina in a very bad way.) I wish that so many of the secondary characters weren’t caricatures — the head of the LIC, Mr. Craike; the LIC-installed families of Caden and Dylan; the two friends, Natalie and Dylan. I wish that everyone who wasn’t a painfully attractive male didn’t get punished by the novel in some way. I wish that Dietrich didn’t rush the ending and then completely destroy everything endearing from before with one out-of-character “twist” that I won’t spoil but I will say is completely pointless from a plot perspective and is therefore meant solely to antagonize the reader.
In many ways, this book reminds me of The Hunger Games. I wish Dietrich had, as I said, taken his time and turned this into a trilogy. The novel has three parts, but the three parts are strikingly different from each other, and they feel at odds in the same book, like three Siamese fighting fish in the same tank. As it stands, the novel isn’t sure if it’s about the espionage, the overthrowing of the crooked spy compound, the gay romance, the straight friendship, or the moral repercussions of all the above. As such, none of those plots gets enough attention, the world-building and plotting feel half-baked and inconsistent, and the entire thing feels rushed, despite the rather lengthy page count (350). If Dietrich had taken the time and spread it out over three novels, this would have been amazing — and I have no doubt he could have, too, since I know he’s good enough to keep me reading for 350 pages despite all these negatives — which perhaps makes the disappointment sting even more.