28 Questions is a novel about what makes relationships, as two women meet as students, fall deep into friendship and then in love. Amalia moves from Australia to Oxford to start as a first year music student and is still dealing with the culture shock and the work when she meets Alex, another Australian in her third year. They quickly become best friends, asking each other questions and learning more and more about each other, but Amalia starts to realise they’re both maybe feeling the pull of attraction. A romantic relationship might be perfect, or it might change things forever.
Spanning across four years, three at Oxford and then one once Amalia has graduated, 28 Questions uses the idea of it taking 28 questions to fall in love to structure the book, with each chapter named after a question that will occur. The premise sounds a bit like a romcom, and I did see it being marketed as a ‘queer When Harry Met Sally‘ (a film the book references a few times, around ideas of friendship and sex), but it is less of a romcom than a coming of age type book set at university, exploring love, sex, and relationships as well as music and art and what is highbrow or not. One book it actually reminded me of in some ways is The Lessons by Naomi Alderman (which is funny because characters talk about Alderman’s Disobedience in the novel), as it has a similar sense of complicated love story entwined in Oxford, though 28 Questions is much more focused on the love aspect than the ‘can Oxford students function as humans’ part.
All of the dialogue in the book is written as if a script, with name tags for who is speaking, and though it’s an unusual conceit, I didn’t find it hard to get into, but I imagine it’ll put some people off. There’s also a lot of classical music and opera throughout, which I don’t know much about, but I enjoyed the vibe and some of the discussions about music, and thoughts about creating things and enjoying art more generally. There’s a lot of Oxford detail in this, which I appreciated, and it depicts the insular, pressure cooker feeling well, though I expected more follow through around this later in the book, as it felt like there were things Alex was hiding.
The relationship between Amalia and Alex shows the complexity of feelings, and also how something that sounds good on paper might not work out when people’s actual tendencies and emotions come into play. I liked some of the conversations and the way intensity was shown, and how Amalia expected certain conversations to go, or expected certain types of combative discussion due to being at university. The book captures very well some of the experiences of university and trying to find out who you are whilst also feeling pressure to do well and seem clever, but also how this bleeds into relationships and where lines might be between finding and losing yourself in them.
I really enjoyed 28 Questions, particularly through some of the ideas it explores and the fact it depicted a university experience similar to my own, though I did keep expecting there to be slightly more drama or things later revealed in the plot. I also liked the fact it takes the Oxford student obsession/love story plot and tells it with two women, both quite similar rather than a typical class or other divide, and there’s some good lingering tension between them. If you like university-set stories about messy love and friendship, then this one is worth a read.