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Review: Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith

Review: Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith

‘It’s the perfect idea for a romantic week together: travelling across America by train.

But then Hugo’s girlfriend dumps him. Her parting gift: the tickets for their long-planned last-hurrah-before-uni trip. Only, it’s been booked under her name. Non-transferable, no exceptions.

Mae is still reeling from being rejected from USC’s film school. When she stumbles across Hugo’s ad for a replacement Margaret Campbell (her full name!), she’s certain it’s exactly the adventure she needs to shake off her disappointment and jump-start her next film.

A cross-country train trip with a complete stranger might not seem like the best idea. But to Mae and Hugo, both eager to escape their regular lives, it makes perfect sense. What starts as a convenient arrangement soon turns into something more. But when life outside the train catches up with them, can they find a way to keep their feelings for each other from getting derailed?’

One of the things that I love most about Field Notes on Love is that it isn’t so much a ‘will they? won’t they?’ romance that is extended and exploited throughout the narrative, but a story that is about what it means to love, and not solely in the romantic sense. The relationship that grows between Mae and Hugo is not just based on attraction or desire and it isn’t manipulated to create tension in a more predictable fashion, particularly as the question of whether they have any feelings for each other is addressed quite early on in the story. This in particular is something that isn’t seen very often in novels or television anymore and is what I think we need more of, ultimately allowing for characters’ feelings to be explored over the course of a story, rather than having them get together at the end and leave no room for seeing how they truly interact as a pair.

Field Notes on Love is as much about discovering and learning about what you love and why as anything else. Mae in particular believes that she has found her path in life and has devoted herself to following it, focusing primarily on developing her skills and viewing much of it from an analytical point of view. This has left her with a somewhat clinical approach that Hugo promptly and inadvertently disrupts with his interest in her process and the choices that she makes in putting her films together. He interacts with her interviewees in a way takes her outside of her usual manner of doing things and begins to draw her interest more towards the people in her movies than the ideas and messages she wishes to convey, her need for control over every element giving way to a willingness to examine her own feelings and what she wants from the world.

In a similar vein, Hugo is forced to re-examine what he really wants out of life and how much he is willing to sacrifice in his efforts to avoid hurting the people he loves most in the world. In taking the train journey with Mae, he perhaps does one of the first things that he has ever done solely for himself, and he spends much of the journey worrying about how what he wishes could hurt his five siblings and his parents, seeing their needs as outweighing his own. Hugo is a genuinely lovely character and his views in this respect are admirable, but, as Mae begins to help him understand – her direction and focus on her own goals helping to inject some into his – trapping himself in a life he doesn’t truly want is no way to live. Admittedly, it takes a lot for me to actually like a male character in a lot of YA literature, mostly because they are so often destined to unnecessarily ‘rescue’ or take away the agency of female characters, but Hugo is a sweetheart and a character I would happily read further stories about.

I love both Mae and Hugo’s families, from the interaction of Hugo’s siblings, to Mae’s adorable dads. It’s lovely to see parent and child interactions that are healthy and involve obvious affection and an interest in the well-being of each other, and it’s the familial relationships in the story that are perhaps the thing that I would praise above all. Field Notes on Love leaves the reader with a real sense that they know both families, even though much of the interaction is via Mae and Hugo with their families off-screen, and I would honestly love to see more of them.

Thank you to My Kinda Book & Pan Macmillan for sending me a copy of Field Notes on Love!