If you’re looking for a cliché Wattpad rom-com story + math, you found your next read here.
In continuation of my book review series, Mary Marolla from Abrams Books gave me at least two more opportunities to review going into 2021. In the last semester, I’ve become a full bookworm thanks to the pandemic. In addition to that, reading romantic literature for a Milton English class only heightened my awareness of my own reading aesthetics. Over the break, I stopped at a Barnes and Noble in the cities, and I bought three more books, including Lana Del Rey’s poetry book (I am so excited to go through them all).
The first read of 2021 is a book that was published on January 5. I was looking forward to reading it the moment Marolla first introduced it to me: The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss.
*Warning of spoilers: Read further at your own risk*
The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss is now down as one of my top favorites. This is a surprise to me, given it was my first read of 2021 (I read it between two sittings), and I had never been a big fan of math myself; but the author, Amy Noelle Parks, uses math-related language in a way any reader can understand. Immediately, I was invested in the love triangle between Evie, Caleb and Leo. Although I did have some concerns and questions about the story’s intentions with mental illness, parenting and religion, I found that the answers the author, Amy Parks, wrote back to me were very eye-opening and made me fall in love with the story more.
The first concern I shared with Parks was the topic of mental illness in her story. The main character, Evie, has anxiety, and it affects many decisions she makes. One of these decisions is to join Frontier. Frontier is a huge national competition that brings creativity into math and physics. The competition can also result in scholarships and practically guarantee admission to the college of a student’s choice. When Evie joined Frontier the year before, it was explained she experienced a “breakdown” that resulted in her not communicating for days. In the book, Evie tries out for Frontier again, but this time, partners with her best friend, Caleb, who she knows will support her and help her get through if she were to get cold feet again.
While Caleb and Evie had been friends since they were kids, and Caleb had been falling for her over time, I was a bit concerned the story strayed into romanticizing mental illness. While I have personally never experienced it, I have close friends who complained to me before about the media emphasizing that in a relationship, the lover is the only one who can fix the protagonist. Unfortunately, this came up often because Caleb seemed to be the only one who was able to calm Evie down, and no one else, besides therapy and medicine in-take. I got to ask the author about this.
Parks: A big point of the book is that there is no one thing that helps you to live with anxiety. It takes therapy and medicine and safe relationships and work. Caleb is a big part of what helps Evie navigate the world, but he isn’t the only thing.
One thing I’ve learned as the book has gone out into the world is that many people do not have these intense, safe relationships with just one or two people in their lives. It seems strange to them because they have many, many friends with all different levels of intimacy. That’s never how it’s been for me. For me, my own social anxiety is managed—not only, but in large part—because of the safe and steady presence of my husband, who has been in my life for thirty years now. And while he is absolutely at the center of everything, our connection isn’t confining. It’s what gave me the strength to get a PhD and become a professor and write a novel and pursue publication and raise children. This is what I was trying to convey with Caleb and Evie. Yes, they are very tightly wound together, but that bond lets them be bigger and braver in the world than they would be able to be otherwise. The intensity of their connection helps them turn outward. Neither one of them would be at Frontier without the other.
One of the cutest things I got to read from Parks is that the relationship Evie had with Caleb was partly inspired by her husband. I had some favorite quotes I wrote down, but my favorite line was at the very end, “If Many-Worlds is true, then somewhere in the multiverse, there would have to be an Evie who didn’t fall madly in love with you. And that’s not possible.”
Parks: There were a lot of inspirations. As I’ve probably made clear by now, the book is dedicated to my husband, who is my best friend. I’ve been so lucky to have this relationship in my life that has been a safe space I could always go back to before taking on the next scary thing in the world.
And then my two favorite books when I was little were Anne of Green Gables and A Wrinkle in Time. I often say this book is what would have happened if Gilbert Blythe fell in love with Meg Murry instead of Anne. I love the smitten-boy/oblivious girl thing Anne and Gilbert have going on and that very much inspired Evie and Caleb’s dynamic.
Finally, all my life I’ve been fascinated with mathematics and physics and I wanted to bring a little of the wonder to other people—especially readers of romance—because these topics don’t get taken up in this genre as often as they do in science fiction. In particular, I really love the idea of the multiverse and that all of our alternative decisions are being enacted by other versions of us. And, if this is true, somewhere out there, all of our almost-kisses have become real kisses in at least one universe!
Math is a big topic in this book, which Parks uses many metaphors for. There are many realistic ideas she brought up from a math point of view that interested me. One of these is religion. Personally, I grew up as a Christian, and even though I’ve lingered away in the past couple of years, I used to remember asking questions about a Bible’s clarity vs. science. I asked Parks to further elaborate her ideas for this. Evie said she didn’t like that God celebrated people drowning with a rainbow; but on the other hand, Evie’s best friend, Bex, represented strong faith.
Parks: I was pretty nervous about including this part. While there are a growing number of books with non-Christian protagonists, there still aren’t many that star non-believers. I grew up in a non-religious household. Both my parents were raised Christian and left the church before I was born. Because of this, like Evie, I didn’t encounter a lot of Bible stories until I was in junior high, and when I did, I was vaguely horrified by them. There just seemed to be lots of people dying and being tortured in ways that didn’t make me want to cheer for the guy doing it all.
But it was important to me to show how Bex’s religious beliefs support and comfort her because I have friends and colleagues for whom their faith is really central to who they are and the good work they do in the world.
Similarly, when I read Nicole Kronzer’s book, Unscripted, which depicted a gender inequality in comedy, Parks portrayed sexism in the math and sciences. The first time I read this in Quantum Weirdness, I realized that realistically, it makes sense. My best friend tells me there aren’t many girls in the computer-science field.
Parks presents sexism in teachers like Dean Santori and especially Dr. Lewis. In addition to this, there also seems to be a suggestion in math there is prejudice against race. Caleb seems to be the only person who notices this.
Parks: So first, yes, if you’re a woman in academia and particularly in math and science, you experience sexism. And I definitely drew on my experiences and those of others I knew. Bex talks about being underestimated as a Brown woman in the sciences. David notes that Dr. Lewis dismisses Evie because she’s a girl. (And Evie remembers the microaggressions David experiences because he is Black). Evie herself says she doesn’t like feeling like she has to represent her whole gender.
What I was trying to do with Caleb is show how an empathetic, but privileged white boy might come to understand how privilege and marginalization work in the world. Neither Evie nor David is particularly surprised by the sexism and racism they see, but it’s news to Caleb. As Evie says, “He can’t help it that everything is easy for him.”
After I read Park’s comment on this, I was surprised to hear Caleb’s role in the topic. When I was in high school, I became much more familiar on such topics, like race and sex, and even I saw differences in other students’ behaviors.
Furthermore, Parks was making a statement through Evie’s marginalization in the math and sciences that she shouldn’t have to feel like she is representing her whole gender. Page 149 suggested being the only girl in Frontier is an “honor.” I thought this made Evie feel special. I asked myself is it something truly to be proud of: your accomplishment or you as the “first girl” to win? Through the sexism lens, this manipulates and undermines her talents for her gender. I asked Parks if this was a commentary on misogyny in the society of math.
Parks: Dean Santori says this to her—that it’s an honor to be one of the only girls, and Evie hates it. I don’t think it does make her feel special. She says, “I always love this argument,” to herself, but she’s being sarcastic. It’s terrible to put this pressure on girls and on non-white and non-Asian minorities to feel like their performance is not only their own, but that they are somehow responsible for how their whole gender or whole race is perceived relative to math and science. It’s a terrible additional burden and it makes the work harder and higher stakes.
Sometimes I think the relationship between Caleb and Evie is toxic. Not in all senses, but in a similar way, like Noah and Elle from The Kissing Booth. Parks disagrees, but as a reader, I was cheering the two on, hoping they would be together even though there were still red flags I read through and just dismissed. One flag I mentioned was on page 7: Evie relies on Caleb, and she said to her therapist, Anita, she was certain he wouldn’t leave her. What’s toxic to me about this is that she expects Caleb to always be with her to some extent. It is not a demanding expectation, it’s that she knows he will never leave her. Sometimes I think she always knew his feelings for her deep-down inside, and that makes her a jerk. In addition to this, when Bex confirmed Caleb did love her, Evie played dumb for a good reaction. While this did not hurt Caleb at the time, it did annoy me as a reader.
Parks: I think you’re pointing to Evie’s growth arc. In the beginning, she assumes she and Caleb will always be in close physical proximity because of the depth of their friendship. She does not think he has romantic feelings for her, because, at this point, she sees romance and friendship as entirely separate things. For her (again, at this point in the story), if you have those strong friendship feelings for someone you CANNOT have romantic feelings for them. It’s simply impossible. She doesn’t just think this about herself. She believes this about Caleb too.
Also, at the beginning of the story, Evie believes that she cannot make it without either Bex or Caleb, but over the course of the book, she comes to realize she’ll be okay even if they’re far away.
I suggested to Parks the triangle was similar to Edward and Jacob in Twilight. You have Leo as Edward and Caleb as Jacob because Caleb is the child friend while Leo is the “mysterious” boy. Luckily for me, I was always Team Jacob on Twilight, so throughout the entire book, it was easy for me to get on board with team Caleb.
However, like I said, I was not always on board. There is a “wrongness” when Evie first kisses Leo. While reading, I did not understand why this part made me feel uncomfortable. Caleb had dated the majority of the girls at Newton, but because it was a special math and sciences school, Parks explains early in the book there weren’t many girls there in the first place. The only reason I could find that it was unsettling for me was because of the unfairness. Understandingly, Evie did not have an interest in dating, and Caleb was in love with her from the get-go. His jealousy was obviously there, and he would go into random acts of anger. While the anonymous profile was quite exciting, I found it possessive and presumptuous, especially because Caleb made it towards Evie’s liking. Evie did not do things like that when he dated other girls. Why is that? Evie was never mad at Caleb for making the profile and playing with her emotions.
Parks: I don’t think Evie feels that “wrongness” with Leo because she thinks Caleb’s mad. She’s a little embarrassed that he saw her doing this, but she feels that wrongness because Leo’s not the right boy. She likes kissing him, but in that moment, she wants to be going home with both Bex and Caleb, not going out with this stranger.
Evie never objected to Caleb’s relationships because she didn’t want to kiss him. She wanted to be his friend. And when Caleb tells Evie they are “always” okay immediately after he sees her kiss Leo, he means it. Yes, he’d like to be him, but he would never let it get in the way of their friendship.
Also, I don’t think Caleb is controlling. Although he is in love with her, he absolutely steps back when she expresses an interest in Leo and doesn’t get passive aggressive by pulling back from their friendship. As part of Frontier—the competition they are all a part of—Caleb, Evie, and Leo all make anonymous online profiles, as they are asked to do. Evie says she doesn’t want to know their screen names, and they all follow the rules of Frontier’s honor code, which include not giving out identifying details. So yes, Caleb does try to make his profile attractive to her—in the same way he wears tight t-shirts to try to get her to notice him—but he’s not out there pretending to be someone he’s not. She finds him online because she’s drawn to him in the virtual world, just like she is in the real world. And while, if she thought about it, she certainly could have figured out Caleb’s online identity earlier, she doesn’t, in large part, because she’s starting to have romantic feelings for this person online, and in her head that rules out the possibility that it’s Caleb.
I will say if I could go back and revise a little more, I would have included a scene where Evie thinks through this on the page, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.
Evie’s not mad at Caleb for making the profile because it is what they were all asked to do. She is a little irritated with him for flirting with her anonymously. In the story, I think her low-key reaction is because she is largely relieved to learn that boy, she’s drawn to online and the boy she now realizes she loves are the same person. And then, she’s feels like she gets back at him a bit in those last few days when she knows who he is online, but he doesn’t yet know that she’s found out his identity. Finally, as a writer, I thought I could have a huge, big, blow up fight scene, but honestly, that just seemed super boring to me.
But I did not think Leo was perfect either, which is great. I liked that each of these characters have positive and negative dynamics. For example, on page 98, Leo was already doing some sabotage so he could make a better relationship for him and Evie. He inserted a hydra to ruin Caleb and his coding project. I understand this, partially because you cannot force a relationship, especially one as good as Evie’s and Caleb, but readers feel sympathy for Leo because there is no way there can be another relationship built stronger than what Evie and Caleb already have. This is also conveyed when Evie tells Caleb she is stressed for answering so many get-to-know-you-like questions from Leo.
Parks: Honestly, I love Leo and Caleb’s relationship. I think they get each other in a pretty fundamental way, and if not for Evie, they would be super close friends. They both have sort of a wry sense of humor, and Leo has this quietness and uncertainty that Caleb is drawn to, in the same way he’s drawn to Evie. When the book opens, Caleb’s out running sprints with Leo because he didn’t like seeing him out there alone. For his part, Leo’s amused by Caleb’s enthusiasm and all-out-there emotion.
Of course, they’re jealous of each other because Leo is falling for the girl Caleb’s in love with, but I don’t think either of them actually see it as a competition. Both of them respect Evie and what she wants, and they like each other because of that. I think after the book ends, Leo will be sick of Caleb’s face for a while, but then they’ll reconnect. I actually like to think of them as having a relationship that lasts through college, long after Leo and Evie stop communicating.
Finally, I had to ask Parks if she was making any argument on parenting or mental illness. I am leaving out that a big part of the story is the relationship between Evie and her mother. Evie’s mom did not show faith in her daughter’s abilities because of Evie’s anxiety. I always wanted to believe the mom had the best intentions, but by the end, when she tried to drug Evie, I was at a loss. By the end, I think the mom needed more therapy than anyone else. Evie’s mom always argued with her daughter to take medicine, and by this, Parks was insinuating a statement on perfection.
Parks: With Evie’s mother, I was doing two things. The first was trying to push back against this very controlling, achievement-oriented stance that many upper middle-class white parents take toward their children. There’s a lot of desire for perfection by any means necessary. For me, a parent putting Xanax in her kid’s drink before a big event is not so different from a parent paying someone to take the SAT for her.
Related to that, when I read conversations about mental health, I see that in many communities there’s a stigma about taking medicine for mental illness. In white upper middle-class communities, I think it’s often a little different. Taking medicine is somehow seen as more acceptable than needing therapy or acknowledging that there might be real problems in the social dynamics of kids’ lives, whether that’s with their peers or with their families. In the communities where I live, if your kid needs medicine that’s seen as a medical problem. But if your kid needs therapy, that’s often seen as somehow a failure on the parents’ part.
Circling back around—when anxiety is really big, just one thing doesn’t help you cope with it--not medicine, or therapy, or a positive social setting, or a supportive friendship, or a safe romance. You need a lot of these things all operating at the same time.
Growing up in society today, relationship norms keep changing. It’s quite normal to kiss someone and leave it at that, or just wanting “a warm body.” I asked Parks in reference to Bex and Caleb, or Sarah-Cate, what this all meant.
Parks: Sarah-Kate and Caleb had a history. He was never going to be all-in with her, but he was as close to falling in love with her as anyone (all this happened before the story began). And, because both Sarah-Kate and Caleb were upfront with each other about where they were emotionally and what they wanted, I actually don’t think it was the worst thing for either of them. For Caleb, in particular, having this other connection—as with the other girls he dated before Sarah-Kate--is part of what helped him give Evie the space she wanted, whether it was to be not romantically involved with anyone at all or to be dating Leo. Pursuing other relationships—even if they weren’t going to be “the one”—meant he wasn’t sitting around putting his expectations on her.
With Caleb and Bex, I don’t think Caleb even for a second considered kissing Bex. He never would have done it, and while he has his arm around her at that movie, it is wholly platonic. Both his feelings and hers. And actually, it was really important to me to show this. Bex and Caleb have a real, genuine friendship between a boy and a girl that never crosses into the romantic in either of their minds. Because Caleb and Evie have so much subtext going on—and because their touching always does mean a little more—I wanted to have this other relationship where Caleb is only invested as a friend because I do think straight boys and girls can be friends. And I think friends can seek physical comfort from each other without it meaning anything more. This is why Bex asks Caleb to kiss her. I mean, she’s freaking out, so that’s part of the reason, but he is this completely safe and (to her) unattractive option who could show her how this kissing thing works. In this case, he’s the wise one though, and he doesn’t do it.
For Evie, since everything has always been so clear in her mathematical mind—Caleb is in the friend box and Leo is in the boyfriend box—she’s a little puzzled when others confuse them.
After reading this book, I finally understand the title and where it comes from. Was this always the name you planned for the story, or did you initially have another name? It’s so unique and the “quantum weirdness” phrase is only explained once, but the almost-kiss is everything in Caleb’s chapters.
Parks: Well, the truth is a lot of the inspiration for this book came from One Direction’s song, Last First Kiss, which is about friends falling in love so that was the working title of the book. But while the phrase “quantum weirdness” comes up only once, mathematics and physics metaphors for romance are a big part of the book and I wanted something in the title to signal that. And then personally, I’ve always been someone who loves math and science and who loves romance novels, so it felt like a very me-thing to bring them together in the title.
Overall, this book was a pleasure for me to read. Parks mirrors a beautiful relationship that grew from a friendship, which a romantic, like me, finds very ideal. The last reference I wanted to bring up from The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss is the poem, Valediction: Forbidding Mourning by John Donne. The poem depicts a compass, which Parks metaphors to Caleb and Evie’s relationship. It was genius, and to me, my favorite part of the book.
I looked up the poem personally, and I found a lot more relative to Evie’s life. “Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears” (L9) in relation to Evie growing in her mental illness recovery, but also to a new future that is uncertain. The following words stick to me the most to describe Evie and Caleb’s relationship:
“As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.” (Donne 26-28).
I would like to thank Amy Nicole Parks for answering all my questions over the Holiday break on her book. I loved reading The Quantum Weirdness of the Almost-Kiss, and by far, it is the most in-depth book review I’ve analyzed. In addition to this, I need to thank Mary Marolla and Abrams Books for allowing me to contact an author on their works once more.