“It’s OK to Have a Crush on a Fictional Character!” proclaims one of the headlines that comes up after googling the notion of a “book crush.” A bit overenthusiastic in its reassurance, but I should hope so, considering the adoring supporting evidence for the Mr. Darcys and Christian Greys and Peeta Mellarks (and, dare I say, at least on my timeline, the Gideon Navs) of the literary universe. But that’s not exactly what I’m talking about here.
Have you ever developed a crush… on a book itself? Was the experience of reading itself enough to make you giggly, lightheaded, short of breath, flushed, self-conscious but also delighted? Feeling like you’d tapped in to some story that felt impossibly tailored for you, hitting all your narrative buttons? That you then denied all “psh! it can’t be!” even as you tried to play it off like you weren’t hanging on every word on every page you couldn’t turn fast enough?
Book crushes come in many forms, nearly as many as IRL crushes. These are just a few, but perhaps you’ll find something familiar in the reading experiences described…
Y: The Last Man wasn’t my first book crush—that honor goes to Alanna: The First Adventure, when I was nine—but it was the first one where I realized what was happening in real time. I was 21, whiling away my summer working at the Bodies Exhibition at New York City’s South Street Seaport, and I needed some reading material for the slow periods. I picked up the first trade of Y, and within minutes I had to put it back down, my heart racing. Something about it hit too close to home: the premise was completely in my wheelhouse, the kind of what-if that I’d pondered but never dared to try and write; Yorick and 355 and Beth and Hero talked like my friends and I did; every female character was a different shade of witty or badass in all the ways I wished I could be. The story was cinematic, the stakes heartstring-tugging, and I was half-convinced this was some elaborate punking, that Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra were inexplicably paid to write and draw the story that I didn’t realize I craved, as both a reader and a writer.
It was that first flush of infatuation, yes, but it was also “I feel seen.” I couldn’t get enough; I tried to ration out the other nine trades based on the rest of the summer and my meager paychecks, but it was a losing battle. I was a goner ever since that first panel hit me like Cupid’s arrow.
Lots of people have their “the one book I threw across the room,” which can be prompted by anything from a frustrating cliffhanger to bad characterization to problematic content. Or, perhaps, inarticulate delight.
I’ve written about how I can’t get enough of getting fooled by Megan Whalen Turner’s maddeningly brilliant thief Eugenides, but that doesn’t mean that I go along quietly each time it happens. There has been at least one moment in every book from The Queen’s Thief series that, upon learning the latest clever bit of narrative misdirection, I will slam the book onto my lap, sit up on the couch, and yell something akin to “THEY FUCKING GOT ME AGAIN.” Think of it as the book equivalent to the passionate slap in a romantic comedy—I just love it so freaking much that I’m angry about it, and nothing will fix it but pulling the book back up to cover my face and read furiously, or page back through a key scene to go over it with fresh eyes. Sometimes I have to shove the book aside like I can’t even look at it, pace the room, talk aloud to my confused pup about how I could have missed the mention of the secret passageway or thrown inkwell, and eventually sigh and succumb to finishing the book knowing that Gen’s plan worked.
But Is There Fanfic?
Connie Willis’ Crosstalk was one of those books I looked forward to from the moment I knew about its existence, namely for the screwball comedy premise of being able to read people’s thoughts. A spec-fic rom-com in the style of Nora Ephron? Cue the heart-eyes.
The only wrinkle was, a book so cognizant of tropes had one glaringly obvious one smack in the middle of its own text: Heroine Briddey’s boyfriend Trent, who suggests they get this experimental procedure that will allow them to connect telepathically, is so clearly a jerk from the start. The fact that Briddey can’t hear Trent’s thoughts, but seems instead to be on the same frequency with her grumpy, nerdy coworker C.B. Schwartz, only makes it more obvious. Hallmark and Lifetime have taught us to recognize the formula: Trent is clearly the ill-fitting partner who seems to get her but really doesn’t, and perhaps even has bad intentions for their relationship; it’s not a question of if he’ll lose out to the story’s true romantic hero, but when.
The lack of any redeeming qualities for Trent made it a tad difficult to appreciate any plot tension in Crosstalk—but in terms of romantic tension? Wowee. With Briddey and C.B. dancing around inside each other’s heads, with him mentally and sometimes physically comforting her with his teachings on how to build a fortress in her mind, I was flipping pages and yelling “KISS ALREADY!” The moment I finished the book, with the romantic tension barely resolved and if anything even more stoked, there was only one place I could go: Archive of Our Own. I had to know if someone else was as emotionally frustrated by Briddey and C.B.’s slow burn and if they had thrown a match on it.
At the time, mere days after the book’s publication, of course the answer was no. But in the two years since, there are a grand total of… three Crosstalk fanfics! Bless this little fandom, which exemplifies the ideal situation where the source material leaves you wanting more—and then you go and write the next chapter.
My husband and I decided to plan our honeymoon for about a year after our wedding, to put some time between this giant party we had thrown and a nice relaxing trip to look forward to once we were past the first heady months of being newlyweds. It so happened that in addition to looking forward to our Spain trip, I also had a new Megan Abbott thriller to count down the days to: Give Me Your Hand, a typically twisty and disturbed novel about two female scientists with a bloody history jockeying for the “one girl spot” in a study on premenstrual dysphoric disorder, or PMS that makes you kill. Despite being announced at least six months ahead of publication, there were no excerpts to be had, and no way for this sci-fi/fantasy reviewer to get her hands on an ARC. So, I preordered… for the last day of our honeymoon. While we were checking out of our Barcelona Airbnb and beginning the long slog to the airport for twelve hours of travel, I had my nose buried in my ereader and the opening pages of Give Me Your Hand. It took all my self-control to wait until we had lifted off to actually read—then I squeezed my husband’s hand, said, “What a dream honeymoon,” and ignored him for the rest of our flight.
I inhaled Give Me Your Hand in four hours, curled into the same position in my cramped seat. I probably got up to use the bathroom at some point but I’m sure I took the book with me. I read it so fast that I gaped at the first twist I had somewhat guessed but didn’t think she’d actually do, gasped at the secondary twist that recontextualized the entire novel, reached the end… then realized I had read so fast that some of the details didn’t stick, and had to turn around and start over from the last third.
I’m Not Worthy
Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire was the hardest to pin down, because it’s a mix of multiple book-crush styles. First there was the initial intimidation of the opening lines—trying to ascertain the premise of this alien universe while my eyes kept tripping back and forth over the poetry of “here is the grand sweep of civilization’s paw, stretched against the black between the stars…” I was ready to proclaim this book too smart for me, or to put it aside and try again another day, when I found myself adjusting to the cadence of the omniscient third-person narrator, cataloguing the unfamiliar words that were the (world)building blocks of the Teixcalaanli empire—and, most shockingly, recognizing myself in these humans who had evolved lightyears beyond my world.
What started as the expectation of being dazzled by a space opera bearing no resemblance to anything in the present instead became the oddest connection across space and time—to Mahit Dzmare’s loving memorization of Teixcalaanli poetry, to Three Seagrass’ balancing act between professional ambition and personal creativity, even to Thirty-Six All-Terrain Tundra Vehicle’s gauche self-naming. These supposed aliens were people… and while I was realizing this, Martine was weaving a political epic that was thrilling from its quietest moments to its bloodiest. It’s the kind of writing that makes me feel raised up as a reader and like I’m not worthy enough as a writer. I can’t stop bringing this book into conversations, the way you might shoehorn in a mention of someone who gets your heart racing, even when they have absolutely no connection to the matter at hand. I want every person to have my experience with this book, or something entirely different—but above all I want them to read it, so we can find each other, clasp hands, and squeal over our book crush together.
If you’ve experienced any/all of these, then congratulations, you’ve got a book crush! Now—I told you mine, you tell me yours.
Natalie Zutter is low-key trying to convince her husband to play the new Hollow Knight expansion on Valentine’s Day so she’ll have an excuse to finish Gideon the Ninth on the couch next to him. Ahh, love (of reading). Swoon over book crushes with her on Twitter!