Tuesday, December 13, 2016

More Scientists in Love: Emily Foster's HOW NOT TO FALL

This must be my month for female scientist protagonists in romance. Last week I wrote about Kaya, a Filipino molecular biologist in Six de los Reyes's Beginner's Guide: Love and Other Chemical Reactions; today's science nerd heroine is New York City transplant white girl Annabelle, just finishing up her B.S. in a psychophysiology lab at Indiana University. But even though both Kaya and Annie are scientists (or scientists-in-the-making), two such different protagonists are hard to imagine. Just as there are many ways of being a woman, so, too, are there many different ways of being a woman scientist.

When Annie was younger, she thought that dance, not science, would be her future career. In fact, during her early teen years, she was dancing five days a week in preprofessional training at the Joffrey Ballet. But when she was fifteen, "dancing eight hours a day and doing my academics as a hobby," she had a sudden realization—she loved dancing, but it was doing science, studying the biology of the brain, that "made me feel like me" (Kindle Loc 1238). Art and science are often constructed as binary opposites—you're a math/science person, or you're an artsy person. But Annie appreciates the science behind what she can do on a dance floor, and the artistry of what she can do in the lab.

Annie still keeps a foot in the dance camp, teaching classes at a local studio several times a week, but the majority of her hours are spent in the lab, working on her senior thesis about peoples' responses to anger. And lusting after the department's post-doc, twenty six-year-old rockclimbing dreamboat Charles. But Annie's personality won't allow her to sit and lust in silence any longer; no, she's all about the going-for-what-you-want method of barreling through life. And so, after quietly lusting for a year and a half, Annie has invited Charles to meet under the pretext of needing help with some data for her thesis. But in reality, she's planning to tell him this (which of course she has rehearsed, since she is one well-prepared scientist): "Charles: you know this is my last semester in college, and then I'm leaving for grad school. I think you and I have A Thing and so I would like to engage in a physical relationship with you before I leave Indiana. What do you say?" (45).

Annie considers including "a list of attributes I think make me a highly promising sex partner, a list that is bold, funny, and indicative of her lack of sexual experience:

(1) My brain. An asset for every other complex task I've undertaken, and I see no reason why it won't come in handy for this one.
(2) My athleticism. I don't know exactly how this will help me either, but I'm sure I've heard the phrase "athletic sex," and I'm sure I would like to try some.
(3) My enthusiasm. I feel confident it's better to have sex with someone who's really, really glad to be there with you than with someone who isn't.
And possibly also (4), my unblinking willingness to look like an idiot in public. (59)

Not unsurprisingly, when Annie springs her proposal on an unsuspecting Charles, she has to draw on all that willingness to look like an idiot in public. For not only does Charles take the out an embarrassed Annie offers when faced with the flabbergasted post-doc ("Feel free to say no! Honestly! I won't take it personally—I mean, even if you mean it personally, I'll just chalk it up to a boss-student thing" [179]), he also points out a serious oversight in the data she sent him, a unaccounted-for pattern that will mean hours and hours more time in the lab for disappointed, sexually frustrated Annie.

Charles, though, sees a lot of himself in Annie, and despite her rather ill-conceived proposition, decides to help her through her last weeks of research and writing. He brings her food when she spends too long in the lab; he takes her rock-climbing to help her relieve stress; and he generally acts as his usual all-around-good-guy, just with an extra helping of nice for Annie.

But Annie can't help but still think "The Thing" is real, especially after she gives in to the sexual tension and kisses him. Turns out that Annie wasn't quite wrong when she sensed that she and Charles had "A Thing." But since fraternizing with those over whom you have power is both a legal and ethical no-no, Charles refuses to do anything about it.

At least until his attempts to stave her off lead whip-smart Annie to back him into a logical corner:

     "We have A Thing!" I say. "We've had A Thing for ages! I thought I was wrong, but I'm not wrong."
     "I give up," he groans. "Look, why don't we talk about it after you graduate."
     "You agree with have A Thing?"
     "Yes. We have A Thing. Christ on a bike." With his elbows on his desk, he rakes his hands into his hair and stares at his blotter.
     "And you'll talk about it after commencement, on the tenth?" As far as I'm concerned, he has opened a negotiation.
     "Sure. Yes," he tells his blotter.
     "Classes end May second and I've got no finals, so really I won't be a student after that. We could talk about it then, on the last day of classes, instead of waiting until after commencement."
     He looks up at me and throws himself back in his chair. "Annie—"
     "Why not?"
     "Saints defend me. Christ and all the apostles fucked up the arse by Moses, fine. All right. We'll talk about it on the second. Now for the love of god, please get out of my office, you harpy." He shoos him with one hand, from his trench behind the desk.
     I rise, but I don't leave. "What time on the second?" (784)

A detail-oriented brain may be a necessary requirement for success as a scientist, but persistence is equally important. And Annie is nothing if not persistent.

And thus, on May 2nd, Annie and Charles become friends with benefits, both agreeing to engage in a short-term fling. A fling that gets off to a bit of a rocky start when, during their pre-sex exchange sexual histories thing (and in what might just be my favorite passage in this amazingly hilarious book), Annie informs Charles that she's never really engaged in intercourse before:

     "I guess I'm what would be called a 'virgin.'" I put it in quotes with my fingers and make a face.
     "I beg your pardon?" he says.
     "A virgin?" I say, like it's a question. "It's a medically meaningless idea, it's all just patriarchy and—"
     "Yes"—he holds up a hand an closes his eyes—"I'm a feminist too, we needn't rehearse the arguments about purity as a virtue meaningly only int he context of male ownership of women."
     (You see why I like this guy? He says it like it's just understood that any reasonable person would identify as a feminist. I didn't identify that way until, like, two years ago, but with him, feminism is taken as read. Ah-mazing.)
     And then he says, "Oh god," and he leans back in his chair and looks at the ceiling. "I had no idea I was so medieval." He's laughing now, a silent chuckle, both hands over his face.
     "Apparently, I'm a terrible human being," he says through his palms. Then he takes a great big sigh and straightens a little in his chair, gripping his hands together in his lap. "The idea of deflowering you has given me a raging hard-on and filled my brain with the most shamefully barbaric thoughts. There's a bit of self-knowledge I wouldn't have bet on." He's looking out the window, where the sun has just begun to set.
     "Really?" I'm grinning, terribly pleased for no reason. It's not like I earned that hard-on, I mean, I all I did was not have any sex yet, but still!" (979)

Clearly, despite his "medieval" tendencies, Charles is the more experienced, and the more emotionally mature, partner in this duo. But he never uses either advantage to make Annie feel lesser. And Annie, with her courage, her enthusiasm, and her determination to not let embarrassment interfere with what she wants, or with understanding what Charles wants, has just as much to offer the post-doc as he has to offer her, both in and out of bed.

The "Thing," then, runs quite smoothly (quite hotly!) for a few short weeks. Until Annie, in her boundless enthusiasm, falls crashingly hard into love with Charles... and Charles doesn't with her.

Or so he (and his background of family trauma) say...

On her web site, Foster explains that she wrote How Not to Fall "because she was totally sure it was possible to write a romance about a college student who experiences her sexual awakening with an older, more powerful man, in a way that was sex positive, feminist, and medically accurate, as well as sexy as heck." After reading How Not to Fall, I'm happy to report that Foster exceeded all four of her goals. And topped it all off with the tastiest of cherries: laugh-out-loud humor.

Good thing the sequel to this cliffhanger, How Not to Let Go, will be coming out right after Christmas....

Photo credits:
Rock climber: Vertical Hold Rock Climbing Gym
Dept. of Brain Sciences: Indiana University
I Am a Feminist, Too: Thinker's Notepad

How Not To Fall
Kensington, 2016


  1. Thanks for the great review. I'll have to check this one out soon. It looks like fun! I like that Foster wrote the younger woman / man in power story in a way that isn't exploitative. I'd hate to see the world lose all it's sexy professors (and not just because I'm a professor) but at the same time I cringe when it seems like, in real life, the scene would be a flagrant abuse of power.

    1. Thanks, Karelia. Will look forward to hearing your thoughts (if you'd care to share them) after you check this one out!