Two strangers walk into a room. They sit facing each other. They ask and answer 36 predetermined questions ranging from the banal to the intimate. Afterward, they stare into each other’s eyes silently for four minutes. Will they fall in love?
In the 1990s, psychologist Arthur Aron developed the 36-question study to see if scientists could understand the underlying mechanisms of intimacy and facilitate relationships. The original results were inconclusive. Then in 2015 the questions gained viral popularity thanks to a New York Times Modern Love column, in which the writer describes conducting the experiment in a bar on herself and an acquaintance – including the part where they stare into each other’s eyes (they chose to do this bit on a bridge). They fell in love.
In Vicki Grant’s new YA novel, the scientific query is bandied again, this time for a digital generation unused to face-to-face emotional sharing. The protagonist, Hildy, agrees to take part in an Aron-based study, enticed by the prospect of love. She shows up holding a puffer fish in a plastic bag, putting forward the quirkiest version of herself. Her study-mate, Paul, is there for the $40 stipend, and is not the least bit interested in science, love, or quirk. Yet, sparks inevitably fly – as does the puffer fish when, in a moment of frustration, Hildy chucks it at Paul.
The fish incident ends their first meeting, even though they are only at Question 14. Over the course of the book, Hildy and Paul feel compelled to find each other and complete the study. Veteran middle-grade author Grant breaks up the monotony of their Q&A sessions with family drama, oddball supporting characters, missed connections, and a variety of prose devices, including instant messaging, texts, and sketches. Still, most of the novel is Hildy and Paul bantering their way through questions, the likes of: “When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?” and “What roles do love and affection play in your life?”
36 Questions That Changed My Mind About You has been sold in 17 countries so far and is poised to be a blockbuster, thanks to its viral inspiration. But fans of YA relationship novels such as Eleanor & Park or The Perks of Being a Wallflower will find this one lacks indie cred: there are no hip references to music (Hildy listens to Taylor Swift), no truly authentic introspective moments, and Hildy’s over-the-top sidekicks feel forced and superficial. Plus, Paul’s character doesn’t feel fully formed, and it’s hard to tell if Hildy is supposed to be as annoying as she comes across.
Yet, there’s a propulsive force to the story that can’t be denied or resisted. It’s the kind of book that makes you miss your subway stop. What Grant lacks in character development, she more than makes up for in tempo and dramatic tension.