Is Ali Hazelwood’s “Love on the Brain” Any Good?

Last year, I read “The Love Hypothesis” by Ali Hazelwood. I expected to be entertained for a few hours, but I hadn’t anticipated the rabbit hole I would soon fall down as I began researching the intersection between science communication and entertainment media. Or, in words normal people understand, reading that book made me want to answer this question: how can we get regular people to want to learn science?

I think packaging a scientific message in a romance novel could be an interesting way to get more people to read about science. Your thesis about using molten salts for thermal energy storage might be boring as all hell, but if you stuff it into a sexy story about a chemist and a nanoengineer who fall in love, then at least some people will read it and give a crap.

Love on the Brain” is Ali Hazelwood’s second full-length novel. It’s about Bee Königswasser, a neuroscientist, who is offered the lead position on a joint NIH-NASA neuroengineering project. The only problem is that her co-lead, Levi Ward, has hated her since graduate school and seems to be sabotaging the project (Levi doesn’t hate her and is not sabotaging the project). As the two work together, they form a strange alliance that blossoms into friendship and then progresses to hardcore boning. There’s conflict, but love prevails, and the bad guys mostly get what’s coming to them.

So if you’re wondering, “I liked Hazelwood’s first book, so should I read this one?” then my answer to your question is “maybe.” If you’d like more information about the “why,” I’ve assembled a list of sorts below. 

The Good

Levi. He’s a big sexy man who’s so perfect it’s unbelievable. I mean that. I mean, I do not believe that this man exists. I do not believe that a 6’4″ man with a “shredded physique” could subsist on a vegan diet while also leading a team of Engineers at NASA. I do not believe this man would have a prominent position in STEM, thoughtfully acknowledge his privilege as a white man, be kind and considerate to all of the people under his leadership, and run a popular, anonymous Twitter account to preach this. The man’s biggest flaw is that he’s not a great communicator, which does lead to the whole “OMG, he hates me,” conflict. 

One of the things I appreciated about “The Love Hypothesis” was that Adam Carlsen was a flawed person. He meant well, but the book shows that as a professor, his feedback is often rude and discouraging. Carlsen’s words and actions hurt people. This kind of behavior may seem less than ideal in your romantic lead, but that’s only if you want to present a character who doesn’t need to grow. Carlsen had some internal work he needed to do to become a better person, and he had Olive, his love interest, to thank for that (She literally tells him to f*ck off, and it’s deeply satisfying). When we meet Levi, he’d already done the difficult internal work, which left almost all of the character development for Bee. That’s a lot to put on one character.

Look, Levi as a romantic hero is great, but he’s not a real person. Yoked-out, sensitive, scientifically-inclined vegans who care about self-improvement and equity do not exist. 

But I did enjoy indulging in this fantasy world where they could. 

The Science. The main characters in this book are working on a joint project for NIH and NASA and are creating some sort of magic helmet that will stimulate astronaut brains. I think they’re making the helmet from the movie “Tron“? The project was interesting enough to move the story forward and worth a post-book google search to see if it was viable. I think it may be.  

Women in STEM. Bee and her ex-bffl had a phrase that I liked: “Sausage Referencing.” It’s about how women usually aren’t taken seriously until a man (preferably one highly respected in his field) vouches for her. It is a sad, offensive reality for many smart women in STEM who aren’t taken seriously. Not all men will disregard their female coworker’s opinions, but enough have, and there is too much truth to this phrase. Kudos, Hazelwood. Give it a few years, and we’ll hear this phrase at conferences.

Taken directly from the book (and maybe she should seriously consider Trade Marking it and putting it on buttons)

The Messy Friendship. I will always have a soft spot for someone who screws up badly and then tries to make amends. We learn that Annie was Bee’s best friend before sleeping with Bee’s fiancé, Tim. This betrayal destroyed their friendship and left Bee feeling deeply hurt and alone. In every trash teenage drama, the female best friend will do something shady and spend the rest of the story being mean and spiteful to the main character. This kind of conflict adds nothing to the story beyond perpetuating the “women be bitches” stereotype that’s all too prevalent in media. I want to give Hazelwood props for creating a character like Annie. Someone who meant well but due to jealousy, insecurity, and loneliness, hurt someone she loved and wants to atone. And I appreciate that Bee wanted to forgive her. I don’t know if Bee and Annie will truly regain their friendship, but I hope they do. 

The Bad

Rocío. This April Ludgate rip-off is demonstrably rude, mean, and unhelpful. Rocío is Bee’s undergraduate assistant, and we’re meant to understand that she’s very intelligent and cool. Rocío is a bunch of Gen Z, and goth stereotypes rolled into a character that seems to exist only so Hazelwood can have an excuse to vent about the inequity of the GRE. We’re supposed to like her because she falls in love with the sparkly girly girl Kaylee and fulfills the “grumpy one is soft for the sunshine one” trope. She mostly reminded me of that furry who mouthed off to Homer Hickam.

Guy. In “The Love Hypothesis,” the villain is friends with the male lead and tricks everyone into thinking he’s a “nice guy,” until he reveals his true colors. The same thing happens in “Love on the Brain,” except whereas the villain in “The Love Hypothesis” seemed somewhat grounded in reality, Guy was a Scooby-Doo villain just waiting to be unmasked. And no, my “nice guy” comment was not intentional, but now that I’ve written it, I think that is exactly what Hazelwood intended when she named her antagonist “Guy.”

I love this image but it’s not mine and I got it from the “nice guys” know your meme site.

The Blatant Star Wars Fanfiction. For those unfamiliar, Ali Hazelwood was one of many, many women who watched the Star Wars movies “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” and was captivated by the main antagonist, Kylo Ren. They fell in love with his weird, moody outbursts, his fluffy hair, and the palpable tension between him and Rey, the scrappy would-be jedi. There is a lot of fanfiction about those characters.

I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve read more Reylo fanfiction than is healthy. However, I would be ashamed to admit that I wrote a ton of it and then had it published. I don’t mean to disparage fanfiction writers, but if your “original” works are derived from the same intellectual property, that will show in your writing. And when you publish two Star Wars fanfics in a row, readers will naturally draw a comparison, which may not be favorable. If you are like Ali Hazelwood and enjoy writing AU Reylo fanfiction, then by all means, have a blast. But if you plan to publish it as an original work, I recommend doing more than just a “Replace All,” with the main character’s names.

The Mid

The GRE stuff. You know what’s almost as excruciating as sitting through the GRE? Listening to someone bitch about it. I agree with Hazelwood that the GRE may not be a valid indicator for graduate student success. Does that mean I want to read about it in a romance novel? No, especially when it’s formatted in such a whiny way. And it did not need to be an entire subplot. 

Some of the Side Characters. Bee’s sister was alright. Kaylee seemed cool at times. Unfortunately, almost every other male character aside from Levi was an unrepentant douchebag, which got old. If I wanted to hang out with sexist NASA twats, I’d rewatch “Hidden Figures.”

Bee. I implore you to believe me: I wanted to like her. I was so excited to read about a kick-ass neuroscientist who idolized Marie Curie and ran an anonymous STEMinist Twitter account. I love female characters I can admire and emulate. Except, Jesus Christ, Bee is so obnoxious. Her internal dialogue is crammed with witty quips and silly tangents like botfly larvae. She weeps whenever she sees road kill. She brags about getting her “choncha” waxed. She’s good at science but not much else, like remembering her keys or changing her passwords. She will happily lecture someone (usually Levi) about a social justice issue without considering if that person is aware of the issue. She loves jumping to conclusions. She won’t shut up.

You will know she’s a vegan, so help you, God.

Being inside Bee’s mind felt like walking into a butterfly conservatory only to get inside and realize that not only is it a sweltering sauna, but in actuality, those pretty butterflies are really swarms of angry bees. Which is rough because she’s the narrator, and it is impossible to escape her perspective. 

Like Levi is comparable to Adam, Bee is comparable to Olive, the main female character from “The Love Hypothesis.” Except I found Olive to be a lot more relatable. Sure, she liked sugar and pumpkin spice a bit too much and wore flip-flops in the lab, but those are minor quirks. Like Bee, Olive loved science but seemed driven to forward her research and career in a refreshing and realistic way. Olive was also an orphaned graduate student with few resources, and had to be reliant on her own intelligence and grit. She was easy to like. Bee… not so much.

Bee does have to contend with being a woman in a male-dominated field, which is challenging, but her behavior in the book often felt juvenile and petty. I might have felt differently about Bee if I had read this book first, but I’m not sure.

“Love on the Brain” is still a pretty good book, although I would not recommend it with the same ferocity that I did “The Love Hypothesis.” I would not consider this book a prime example of science communication, and even though I liked a few moments, this book was not a superb representation of women in science. Though in all fairness, you probably will have a coworker like Bee, who’s good at science (and that’s it) and that person will drive you insane. 

Going forward, Hazelwood might do herself a favor and try to break away from her current writing formula.

If I were Hazelwood, I’d find a new movie and fictional bad guy to become obsessed with. What about Jareth from “Labyrinth“? He’s a babe, and almost 40 years later viewers are still haunted by the romantic tension between him and Sarah Williams. Hazelwood could write a book where Jareth is a tenured literature professor, and Sarah is a young graduate student looking for an advisor. The creepy, predatory power dynamic would work in favor of those two! If Hazelwood needs more disturbing, unequal romantic relationships to thirst over, she should reach out to me! I’d happily supply her with creative material for her next book. 


3 thoughts on “Is Ali Hazelwood’s “Love on the Brain” Any Good?

  1. – As you know I’m on an anti-romance kick as of late so I already hate Levi… we do not need unrealistic expectations any longer. The expectation is somewhere in the pits of the abyss… maybe in purgatory. All you hear is white noise and not the “Calm” app white noise.
    – I think “Sausage Referencing” is for all fields. It’s unfortunate… makes me think I need to tell all men, “you have NO IDEA how many men I have helped with their homework…”
    – I actually hope Annie and Bee do not become friends again… but we know how I am LOL
    – LMAO the nice guys meme… it should be a dating app advertisement for women before joining any dating app. Proceed at your own risk.
    – I took the GMAT, but it’s just a necessary evil. It’s like the SAT. We can complain about it all we want, doesn’t mean it will go away.
    – There are so many things I find annoying in life, but people who try to shove their religion (i.e., I’m such and such religion, if you don’t join, you will be condemned for eternity… CONDEMN ME then) and eating habits (i.e., I’m vegan and because you eat chicken and fish, you are our downfall) is in the top 20.


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