By Ekta R. Garg

February 24, 2022

The Arc by Tory Henwood Hoen

Release date: February 8, 2022

Genre: Women’s fiction

One of the “hazards” of becoming an author is that a conscientious author is supposed to read a lot. We’re supposed to read widely, in the genre we write as well as in other genres. I have no problem with this requirement in theory. It’s fun to sample thrillers and historical fiction, YA books and, yes, even romance occasionally.

The trouble with reading widely, though, is that you learn a lot of stuff, especially about writing. What to do, what not to do, and how to make the most of the pages allotted to a story. Some of this informal advice is pretty straightforward—grammar and whatnot—but some of it feels less concrete.

For example, I tend to pick characters names that are easy to read, remember, and pronounce. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I have an unusual name myself that the majority of the world mispronounces regularly. I don’t want anything tripping up my readers as they immerse themselves in my story, and our names are one thing that we use pretty frequently. To help my readers move along at a good clip, I like to give my characters names to make the story seamless.

In The Arc, one of the “tripping” hazards for me was how the author chose to name one of her characters. Anyone who grew up in the 1990s and who paid even the slightest bit of attention to animated films has an instant image in their minds when they hear the name Ursula. I’m sure it’s a perfectly good name and that many people are named that. I also have no doubt that they probably endured insufferable ribbing and teasing after The Little Mermaid released.

To be clear, I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with the name itself. I do think it can be a distraction for readers at times, though, especially when characters are first introduced and the plot and emotional stakes are being established. Ursula is one of the protagonists of The Arc, but early on her name made me giggle a little bit because I kept thinking of the sea witch. 

(And just to be clear, I think Ursula the sea witch is one of the coolest villains Disney ever created. Her sass and her unapologetic swag about being bad were both appealing me, even when the movie first came out. Plus, her violent death was definitely a jolt to the system that Disney had entered a new phase of storytelling.)

Had Ursula, the character, had as much swag and sass as the sea witch, I would have probably forgotten about the movie. But Ursula, the female protagonist in The Arc, ended up breaking a cardinal rule of writing that made her the complete opposite of the sea witch. That rule is not to let characters be passive. Don’t let them sit around waiting for someone else to solve their problems.

In the book, Ursula and her “perfect match” Rafael sign up for a service called The Arc that promises to pair up people and practically guarantee a successful relationship. Ursula is a thirty-something living in New York who wants to settle down and find lifelong love. She hasn’t succeeded in other ways, so she figures a matchmaking service might do it for her.

I was completely with the story up to this point. Sometimes, when we’ve tried every single solution we can come up with, the only answer is to ask for outside help. It’s a human response and completely reasonable.

Ursula’s passivity begins once she and Rafael meet. She automatically assumes that the “hard” part of the relationship is done, so when things start to go sideways—when she and Rafael argue about what kind of dog they might want to adopt in the future—it blindsides both of them. How could things blow up? They followed the formula! They did exactly what The Arc told them to do, and they found each other. That should be the end of all relationship difficulties right there.

Getting matched, of course, isn’t the end; anyone who has been in a long-term relationship or married for a while knows that. But in this case, it seemed like Ursula and Rafael checked their common sense at the door when they got together. Part of the fight had gone out of them, because they think their biggest problem has been solved. What gets lost in the subsequent breakup and pining for one another is the fact that Ursula and Rafael’s real story problem wasn’t to find everlasting love but to do the work to keep it lasting that long.

In fact, as I read the book, Ursula and Rafael’s first meeting almost felt like an ending of sorts. It was a little strange, because The Arc matches them fairly early in the novel—we still have to get through their initial relationship and the breakup, after all, before we get our HEA—so getting a sense of “this is finished” was weird. I’m sure Tory Henwood Hoen didn’t intend for that to happen at all, but it’s one takeaway for me.

I try to learn something from every book I read and review, and my lesson here is to make sure my characters aren’t passive, even in unintentional ways. They can’t give up when they’ve crossed one major hurdle. After all, if I’m doing my job right as an author, there will be several more hurdles for them to jump before they—and my readers—get some measure of relief.