Welcome to #ReadWithMC—Marie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In September, we're reading Helen Hoang's The Heart Principle, the third book in The Kiss Quotient series (though it can read as a stand-alone!), which centers on violinist Anna Sun. Anna attempts to go on a string of one-night stands after her boyfriend says he wants an open relationship; instead, she meets Quan—a guy who changes her life—and an emotional journey follows. Read an excerpt from the novel below, then find out how to participate in our virtual book club here. (You really don't have to leave your couch!)
This is the last time I'm starting over.
That’s what I tell myself, anyway. I mean it every time. But then, every time, something happens—I make a mistake, I know I can do better, or I hear, in my head, what people will say.
So I stop and go back to the beginning, to get it right this time.
And it’s really the last time this time.
Except it isn’t.
I’ve spent the past six months doing this, going over the same measures again and again like a rhinoceros pacing figure eights at the zoo. These notes don’t even make sense to me anymore. But I keep trying. Until my fingers hurt and my back aches and my wrist throbs with every pull of the bow on the strings. I ignore it all and give the music everything I have. Only when the timer goes off do I lower my violin from my chin.
My head is spinning, and I’m parched with thirst. I must have turned my lunch alarm off and forgotten to actually eat. That happens a lot more often than I care to admit. If it weren’t for the zillions of alarms on my phone, I might have accidentally ended myself by now. It’s out of consideration for life that I don’t keep any plants. I do have a pet. He’s a rock. His name is, very creatively, Rock.
The alarm notification on my phone screen says THERAPY, and I turn it off with a grimace. Some people enjoy therapy. It’s venting and validation for them. For me, it’s exhausting work. It doesn’t help that I think my therapist secretly dislikes me.
Still, I drag myself into my bedroom to change. Attempting to muddle through things on my own hasn’t helped, so I’m determined to give this therapy thing a try. My parents would be disgusted by the waste of money if they knew, but I’m desperate and they can’t mourn dollars they don’t know I’m spending. I remove the pajamas that I’ve been wearing all day and pull on exercise clothes that I don’t plan to exercise in. Somehow, these are considered more appropriate in public even though they’re more revealing. I don’t question why people do things. I just observe and copy. That’s how to get along in this world.
Outside, the air smells of car exhaust and restaurant cooking, and people are out and about, bicycling, shopping, catching late lunches at the cafés. I navigate the steep streets and weave through the pedestrians, wondering if any of these people are going to the symphony tonight. They’re playing Vivaldi, my favorite. Without me.
I took a leave of absence because I can’t perform when I’m stuck playing in loops like this. I haven’t told my family because I know they wouldn’t understand. They’d tell me to quit indulging myself and snap out of it. Tough love is our way.
Being tough on myself isn’t working now, though. I can’t try harder than I already am.
When I reach the modest little building where my therapist and other mental health professionals have their practices, I key in the code 222, let myself in, and walk up the musty stairs to the second floor. There’s no receptionist or sitting room, so I go straight to room 2A. I lift my fist toward the door but hesitate before making contact. A quick glance at my phone reveals it’s 1:58 p.m. Yes, I’m two minutes early.
I shift my weight from foot to foot, uncertain what to do. Everyone knows that being late isn’t good, but being early isn’t great either. Once, when I showed up early to a party, I literally caught the host with his pants down. And his girlfriend’s face in his crotch. That wasn’t fun for any of us.
Obviously, the best time to arrive somewhere is right on time.
So I stand here, tormented with indecision. Should I knock or should I wait? If I knock early, what if I inconvenience her somehow and she’s annoyed with me? On the other hand, if I wait, what if she gets up to go to the bathroom and catches me standing outside her door grinning creepily? I don’t have enough information, but I try to think of what she’ll think and modify my actions accordingly. I want to make the “correct” decision.
I check my phone repeatedly, and when the time reads 2:00 p.m., I exhale in relief and knock. Three times firmly, like I mean it.
My therapist opens the door and greets me with a smile and no handshake. There’s never a handshake. It confused me in the beginning, but now that I know what to expect, I like it.
“It’s so good to see you, Anna. Come on in. Make yourself comfortable.” She motions for me to enter and then waves at the cups and hot water heater on the counter. “Tea? Water?”
I get myself a cup of tea because that seems to be what she wants and set it on the coffee table to steep before I sit in the middle of the sofa across from her armchair. Her name is Jennifer Aniston, by the way. No, she’s not that Jennifer Aniston. I don’t think she’s ever been on TV or dated Brad Pitt, but she’s tall and, in my opinion, attractive. She’s in her mid-fifties is my guess, on the thin side, and always wears moccasins and handmade jewelry. Her long hair is a sandy brown threaded with gray, and her eyes...I can’t remember what color they are even though I was just looking at her. It’s because I focus in between people’s eyes. Eye contact scrambles my brain so I can’t think, and this is a handy trick to make it look like I’m doing what I should. Ask me what her moccasins look like.
“Thank you for seeing me,” I say because I’m supposed to act grateful. The fact that I actually am grateful isn’t the point, but it’s true nonetheless. To add extra emphasis, I smile my warmest smile, making sure to wrinkle the corners of my eyes. I’ve practiced this in a mirror enough times that I’m confident it looks right. Her answering smile confirms it.
“Of course,” she says, pressing a hand over her heart to show how touched she is.
I do wonder if she’s acting just like I am. How much of what people say is genuine and how much is politeness? Is anyone really living their life or are we all reading lines from a giant script written by other people?
It starts then, the recap of my week, how have I been, have I made any breakthroughs with my work. I explain in neutral terms that nothing has changed. Everything was the same this week as the week before, just as that week was the same as the week before it. My days are essentially identical to one another. I wake up, I have coffee and half a bagel, and I practice violin until the various alarms on my phone tell me to stop. An hour on scales, and four on music. Every day. But I make no progress. I get to the fourth page in this piece by Max Richter—when I’m lucky—and I start over. And I start over. And I start over. Over and over and over again.
From The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang. Used with the permission of the publisher, Berkley. Copyright © 2021 by Helen Hoang.
Audio excerpt courtesy of Dreamscape Media, LLC