Always excited to read a book with any kind of ace-spec rep. Let’s Talk About Love is in many ways your classic coming-of-age YA/NA tale of a protagonist discovering more about herself, her sexuality and romantic identity, and her relationships with her friends. Claire Kann doesn’t make it easy for Alice (or for the reader, for that part). This is a bumpy, uneven book, with parts that shine and parts that make me go hmm.
Alice doesn’t want to go to law school, but she isn’t sure what else to do with her life, and her parents really, really want her to follow the family tradition. She’s Black (which her parents are obviously aware of) and queer (which her parents are not) and fresh off a relationship that ended because her girlfriend wasn’t comfortable with Alice’s asexuality or lack of interest in sexual intimacy. Over a summer working at the local library, Alice falls for Takumi, who ticks all the boxes for her when it comes to aesthetic attraction. As she wrestles with her feelings for Takumi, she also has to deal with changes in her relationships with her best friends, Feenie and Ryan, who are engaged to each other and whom Alice fears are drifting away from her as a result. Combine all these complicated relationships and you get the recipe for a perfect storm of a summer.
Trigger warnings in this book for intensely acemisic conversations (like, from page one).
Although Alice and I are both asexual, that’s where the similarities end. I’m not Black, biromantic, or female, nor do I experience aesthetic attraction the same way Alice does. My relationship with my asexuality is very different from Alice’s, and while this doesn’t make either of ours less valid (there is no one “proper” way to be asexual any more than there is one proper way to be gay, bi, trans, etc.), it does make me less comfortable commenting on the representation. So although I will comment on how Kann portrays Alice’s asexuality here, keep all these facts in mind.
First, wow, does this book hit the ground running. The first chapter comprises Margot breaking up with Alice “because you won’t have sex with me.” From there we swiftly learn that Alice is asexual, and the conversation features so many of the regular phrases a lot of asexual people hear from people who don’t understand this identity. Kann pulls no punches but handles this well, in my opinion. In almost no time flat, she establishes how Alice and Margot have had a fairly long-term relationship predicated on mutual affection and some forms of physical attraction, yet this uneven set of desires around sexual intimacy has ultimately created too much friction for the relationship to remain strong and stable. Alice is understandably devastated. At the same time, however, we don’t really get any closure from this. (More on that in a bit.)
I love that this book uses asexual and similar terms on the page frequently. I love that Kann references Tumblr, Twitter, and all the other online spaces where queer people often flock to discover more about themselves. Let’s Talk About Love will hopefully be relatable in that sense for queer people (of various queer identities) because of how Alice has been exploring her asexuality online while she tries to figure out how to be more comfortably ace offline—if, indeed, that’s ever something she decides she wants. I also love that Kann uses the split attraction model. She differentiates between asexuality and aromanticism (Alice is biromantic, not aromantic). Similarly, Kann alludes to the asexual spectrum (including gray-asexuality).
Alice’s utter disinterest in sex is an important plot point. She makes it clear in the first chapter that she pretty much only had sex with Margot because it was something that Margot enjoyed. She doesn’t seem to have much libido either. Kann links this to Alice’s asexuality. It would have been nice if there were more explicit mention of the spectrum of attitudes asexual people hold towards sex—more discussion of the distinction between attraction and behaviour. (For example, some asexual people enjoy and even seek out sex.) I’m not sure I have the confidence Kann might have that her readers will infer this difference, and to me, the conflation of asexuality with “doesn’t want sex” is one of the most troubling misconceptions about that identity. That being said, I know this criticism isn’t entirely fair and is more a problem with representation in media overall—if we had more asexual rep in general, Let’s Talk About Love would have more room in which to be narrowly focused and less pressure to somehow represent all asexuality. This is a problem that any marginalized, under-represented group faces when portrayed in fiction, so I can’t really fault Kann too much on this point.
But let’s talk about closure.
Margot never comes back into this story. That’s fine, of course. Lots of people (or so I am told) never see or speak to their exes again, or for the months or so after this breakup that the story takes place. Nevertheless, I don’t like how Alice processes the break-up. All she ever talks about with reference to her former relationship is the ways in which their sexual incompatibility affected things. We don’t really hear about who Alice was when she was with Margot, what bands they listened to together, what they ate, etc. We never get a glimpse of their relationship, only the fact that it ended. There’s a certain lack of depth here that leaves me unsatisfied.
I’m ambivalent about how Alice pursues/doesn’t pursue the relationship with Takumi. A significant portion of my time reading this novel just left me thinking, “Stop trying to label everything and just enjoy being with him.” Part of me wants that to be the point of the story, wants this to be about Alice obsessing over whether she can still be ace if she’s attracted to Takumi in various ways. I totally understand why she’s so uncertain and hesitant about what’s happening. The story eventually settles for a somewhat conventional development of boyfriend/girlfriend labels, alas—I think I just wanted the story to go farther, be even more daring. I want us to shed this fixation with labelling every relationship as platonic or romantic, as friend or significant other. There are so many shades in between.
In that sense, Let’s Talk About Love lets me down a little bit, because it seems to be peddling the notion that ace people “can find love too.” It seems to be offering reassurance that even if you’re asexual, you can still fall for a Cutie Code: Black who will sweep you off your feet, cook you that good food, and never once do anything that makes you uncomfortable. (Takumi is so fucking bland it actually kind of hurts to think about. I’d accuse him of being a manic pixie dream boy except, let’s be honest, he doesn’t actually incite Alice to any adventures.) I know that there are alloromantic asexual individuals out there who really crave a romantic partner but are struggling, so for them, this might be a valuable and much-wanted message. Therefore, I don’t want to knock the book for that. But I, personally, can’t really get behind that message. I had similar reservations about Tash Hearts Tolstoy.
Fortunately there’s more to Alice’s character than being ace, and I like a lot of the other struggles she experiences. Her story of trying to break out of the box her parents have inscribed around her is probably going to feel familiar to many. That being said, as with Margot, I feel like this is one subplot that lacks much closure—we get a kind of half-hearted confrontation followed by a little resolution near the end. But it’s a very long summer of Alice slowly learning she should maybe try to stick up for herself.
I also really enjoyed the tension between Alice and her best friend. This is my favourite subplot, because it is so raw and real and something not explored enough in fiction: friendships are work. Too often in fiction, the protagonist’s “best friend” is this flat, stock character who is just always there for the protagonist, a reliable sidekick without much story of their own. Indeed, Feenie kind of starts that way. She’s this feisty fighter who nevertheless craves the domestic life, and that seems to be it, full stop—until she and Alice fall out. And it’s here that Kann does interesting things, highlighting how Alice’s relative lack of experience with friendships, let alone any other type of relationships, leaves her fumbling in the dark for some clue as to how she could fix this. She learns that no friendship, not even (or perhaps especially not) your best friendships, is maintenance-free. This subplot is such a potent reminder of the need to check your own insecurities sometimes and use your theory of mind skills to actually put yourself in your friend’s shoes and wonder how they feel about your friendship.
Let’s Talk About Love ultimately lacks the kind of writing and storytelling that really gets me excited about a book, especially a YA romance. Is it weird that I vastly preferred To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before despite it being, in some ways, a much more conventional portrayal of youthful romance? Whatever the case may be, I really appreciate that there are more and more books with asexual characters. And I know I won’t relate to them all, that sometimes a book (even an ace book!) won’t be for me but instead for readers who are Black, female, bi, or some combination of those identities or other ones. You might see yourself in this book where I didn’t, and that’s great. Moreover, I’m also pretty picky when it comes to my plots and my character development, and for me, those are the primary areas where I wish this book had shone just a bit more brightly.