Book Review: Principles of (E)motion by Sara Read

Book with words: Principles of Emotion" and "Sara Read' plus a woman on cover, glasses, pencil, and phone ear pods.

Every so often a book comes along that hits just the right points for me, and Sara Read’s PRINCIPLES OF (E)MOTION delighted me from the very first page. For one, I couldn’t decide on which genre to categorize it. Women’s Fiction? Book Club Fiction? Literary Fiction? Romance? All of the above?

Because the story is told from the female protagonist’s point of view, and because the plot, while very much a love story, more firmly hinges on her struggle and personal growth, I finally decided on Women’s Fiction (although I know the term may be deemed politically-incorrect, and for good reasons).

Told in the first person, Principles of (E)motion centers around Meg Brightwood (perfect fairy-tale name, no?). Meg’s a brilliant mathematician as well as someone dealing with acute, chronic anxiety. In fact, Meg’s mental health issues–stemming from a problematic relationship with her overbearing and ultimately unethical father and stunted childhood–have come between Meg and her enjoyment of life, have interfered with her career, and have kept her cut off from the world in a very real way. 

Which brings me to the structure of this novel. Right away, I recognized this as a modern-day fairy tale. Fifteen years before the beginning of the story, Meg ran away from an academic career to live with–and eventually care for–her elderly paternal grandmother, Lila. Meg’s anxiety locked her into a sprawling family home with an actual tower. When Meg arrived, Lila hired a handsome carpenter to work on the house. Isaac fixed Meg’s balcony (because every princess needs a balcony) and also created a wondrous, curving, built-in three-panel chalkboard with wooden chalk rail for the curved walls of Meg’s tower. 

Meg spends the next fifteen years caring for Lila and working on a famous mathematical problem called Frieholdt’s Conjecture, a puzzle considered unsolvable. If unlocked, however, Frieholdt’s solution could change the course of history. Meg is nothing if not obsessed with finding the magical (mathical?) key. 

At the time of Lila’s death, Isaac re-enters Meg’s life. He’s running from his own demons and an arrest warrant, but the two of them reconnect on an emotional level, rekindling a romance that had been interrupted when they were younger. The ensuing love plot hits all the regular points a romance reader expects and craves, but it never feels forced or cheesy. The sexy scenes are tender and move the story forward.

As for math, Meg continues to pursue Frieholdt’s, but her anxiety breathes its scorching Dragon fire, causing her to run away rather than stand her ground.  

It’s this anxiety she must slay in order to have her happy ever after. 

Important secondary characters include Meg’s father, the Evil Sorcerer who longs to both use her and steal her talent, and her cousin, the Fairy Godmother who breezes in with a bippity-boppity-boo (aka kickbutt attitude) which bolsters Meg’s confidence when she needs it most. There’s even a humble cottage in the woods, albeit one with cell-phone service and what sounded like a wonderful Swedish-style tiled wood stove. Oh, and a blacksmith’s shop because, turns out, Isaac the carpenter is also a smithy! Dreamy, dreamy…

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice it to say, the plot had me hooked all the way through, and the writing style managed to tread the perfect line between the best contemporary book club fiction and more literary voices like my two favorite Anns: Tyler and Patchett. We need more female protagonists with STEM gifts and ambitions. For Bonnie Garmus (LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY) fans, this one is a must-read. 

I’m so glad I was able to get my eyes on an ARC of this delightful book. I’ll be adding this, and Read’s debut novel, to my bookshelves. Consider me a new and enthusiastic fan. Five out of five stars for sure!