Love, Theoretically Summary, Characters and Themes

Love, Theoretically is a STEMinist rom-com novel by Ali Hazelwood. It follows the life of Elsie Hannaway, a theoretical physicist juggling adjunct teaching with a side hustle as a fake girlfriend. 

Her carefully constructed life unravels when she crosses paths with Jack Smith, a rival physicist and the older brother of her favorite client. Jack, who also happens to be on the hiring committee at her dream institution, MIT, complicates Elsie’s personal and professional ambitions. The novel explores the clash between academic rivalry and unexpected attraction, as Elsie navigates her feelings for Jack while chasing her dreams.


Elsie Hannaway, a theoretical physicist, works tirelessly as an adjunct professor at three Boston universities.  

While passionate about physics, the meager income and the demands of teaching leave her struggling financially and emotionally. To supplement her earnings and cover her medical expenses, Elsie moonlights as a fake girlfriend through an app called Faux.  

One of her regular clients is Greg Smith, with whom she has developed a friendship. However, Greg’s older brother, Jack, harbors a deep distrust of Elsie, believing she is deceiving his brother.

Elsie’s life takes a dramatic turn when she secures an interview for a tenure-track professorship at the prestigious MIT. 

The opportunity represents a chance to escape the precariousness of her adjunct positions and establish herself in academia. Yet, she is cautioned about the deep-seated rivalry between theoretical and experimental physicists within the department. 

A name from her past surfaces during the interview process—Jonathan Smith-Turner, an experimental physicist infamous for publishing a hoax article that discredited theoretical physics and led to the dismissal of Elsie’s mentor.  

To her surprise, she discovers that Jonathan Smith-Turner is none other than Jack Smith, her client’s brother.

Jack’s suspicions about Elsie intensify, fueled by his belief that she is not only deceiving his brother but also exaggerating her qualifications for the MIT position. 

Elsie, on the other hand, is fueled by a growing dislike for both Jack Smith and the persona of Jonathan Smith-Turner, making the job even more desirable.  

Their interactions become a battleground of subtle sabotage and witty banter. Despite Elsie’s efforts, the position ultimately goes to George, another woman in STEM, who was the intended recipient all along.

Devastated by the rejection, Elsie’s spirits are lifted when she learns the truth about Jack’s animosity. 

Greg reveals that his relationship with Elsie was purely platonic, designed to appease their overbearing mother and conceal Greg’s aromantic orientation. 

This revelation transforms Jack’s perception of Elsie, and he confesses his long-standing feelings for her, admitting that his prior hostility stemmed from jealousy and protectiveness towards his brother.

As Elsie and Jack grow closer, Jack becomes increasingly aware of Elsie’s chameleon-like nature, adapting her personality to please others. He encourages her to embrace her true self, leading to a blossoming romance

However, Elsie’s insecurities and lingering doubts about Jack’s true feelings towards theoretical physicists cast a shadow over their relationship.

The turning point arrives when Elsie confronts Jack about his past article. 

Jack reveals a deeply personal motive behind his actions—revenge against Elsie’s advisor, who he blames for his mother’s ostracization from academia after his birth. This revelation, while painful, helps Elsie understand Jack’s complexities and motivations.

With newfound clarity, Elsie and Jack reconcile, acknowledging their past mistakes and forging a stronger bond. 

Elsie accepts a dream job offer at MIT, secured through George’s support, and Jack publicly retracts his previous article, acknowledging the value of theoretical physics. 

As the novel concludes, Elsie undergoes a significant transformation, learning to set boundaries, prioritize her needs, and embrace her authentic self.

Love, Theoretically Summary


Elsie Hannaway

Elsie is a highly intelligent and passionate theoretical physicist grappling with the challenges of working as an adjunct professor in a field dominated by men. Her chronic people-pleasing tendencies and desperate need for external validation lead her to mold herself into different personas to fit the expectations of others. 

This chameleon-like behavior masks her insecurities and a deep-seated fear of not being good enough. 

Despite her academic achievements, Elsie struggles with imposter syndrome and constantly seeks approval from her peers and mentors. 

Throughout the novel, Elsie embarks on a journey of self-discovery, learning to embrace her true self and assert her worth both personally and professionally. 

Her relationship with Jack acts as a catalyst for this transformation, as he challenges her to break free from the cycle of people-pleasing and to believe in her own abilities.

Jack Smith/Jonathan Smith-Turner

Jack is a brilliant experimental physicist who initially appears aloof, arrogant, and critical of Elsie’s field of theoretical physics. 

His reputation as a formidable rival precedes him, and his past actions, particularly the publication of an article that discredited theoretical physics, have caused significant harm to Elsie and her mentor. 

However, beneath his tough exterior, Jack harbors hidden vulnerabilities and a genuine passion for science. His complex relationship with his family, particularly his mother’s ostracization from academia, shapes his motivations and fuels his desire for revenge. 

As the story unfolds, Jack’s layers peel back, revealing a more compassionate and understanding side. His growing affection for Elsie prompts him to confront his past mistakes and seek redemption for the damage he has caused.

Greg Smith

Greg is Jack’s younger brother and Elsie’s client on the Faux app. He is portrayed as a kind, supportive, and understanding friend to Elsie. 

Greg’s aromanticism and lack of interest in traditional dating create a unique dynamic with Elsie, as their relationship is built on genuine friendship and mutual respect. Greg’s acceptance of Elsie for who she is, without any expectations or demands, provides a safe space for her to be herself. 

His role in the story highlights the importance of platonic relationships and the diverse forms that love can take.

Christophe Laurendeau

Christophe is Elsie’s mentor and a respected figure in the field of theoretical physics. He has been a guiding force in Elsie’s academic journey, offering support and encouragement. 

However, his past conflicts with Jack’s mother and his subsequent actions to protect Elsie from further harm create a web of secrets and unspoken truths. 

Laurendeau’s well-intentioned but ultimately misguided attempts to shield Elsie from the harsh realities of academia lead to a rift in their relationship. 

His character serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of paternalism and the importance of open communication and trust in mentoring relationships.


George is a talented experimental physicist who is initially presented as a rival to Elsie for the tenure-track position at MIT. 

However, as the story progresses, George emerges as a supportive and encouraging colleague. Her genuine admiration for Elsie’s work and her willingness to offer her a dream job demonstrate a spirit of collaboration and camaraderie within the scientific community. 

George’s character challenges the stereotype of women in STEM as being overly competitive and highlights the importance of female solidarity in a male-dominated field.


The Performance of Gender and Selfhood

Elsie’s constant shape-shifting to please others is a poignant commentary on the societal pressures women face to conform and perform. 

Elsie’s adeptness at morphing her personality to fit the expectations of those around her is a survival mechanism, a way to navigate the male-dominated world of academia where she often feels unseen and unheard. 

This performance, however, comes at a cost, eroding her sense of self and leaving her feeling like an imposter. Through Elsie’s journey, Hazelwood explores the complexities of female identity formation in a world that often demands a certain kind of performance from women. 

Elsie’s eventual realization that she doesn’t need to perform to be loved or valued is a powerful affirmation of self-acceptance and authenticity.

The Allure and Danger of Revenge

The novel also delves into the destructive nature of revenge through Jack’s past actions and their consequences. Jack’s decision to discredit theoretical physics was born out of a desire to avenge his mother, who was ostracized from academia due to Laurendeau’s actions. 

This act of revenge, while initially satisfying, ultimately leads to a chain of events that hurt not only his intended target but also innocent individuals like Elsie. 

Through Jack’s character arc, the novel underscores the futility of revenge and the importance of forgiveness and understanding. 

Jack’s journey towards redemption involves acknowledging his past mistakes, making amends, and choosing a path of healing and growth.

The Complexities of Academic Rivalry

The novel also explores the dynamics of academic rivalry, particularly between theoretical and experimental physicists. 

Elsie’s initial animosity towards Jack is fueled by her perception of him as a representative of the experimental physics camp that has historically looked down upon theoretical physicists. 

This rivalry, however, is shown to be more nuanced than it initially appears, as both disciplines are essential for scientific progress. 

The novel subtly advocates for collaboration and understanding between different scientific fields, highlighting the importance of mutual respect and appreciation for diverse approaches to knowledge.

The Importance of Self-Worth and Boundaries

Elsie’s struggle with self-worth and her difficulty in setting boundaries are central themes in the novel. 

Her tendency to prioritize the needs and desires of others over her own leads to feelings of resentment and inadequacy. 

Through her relationship with Jack and her experiences in academia, Elsie learns the importance of valuing herself and asserting her needs. 

This process of self-discovery and empowerment is a significant aspect of her character development, illustrating the transformative power of recognizing one’s worth and establishing healthy boundaries.