The Dating Game: Julia Argy’s Debut Novel “The One” Chronicles the Fallacy of Finding True Love on a Reality TV Show
“‘I’m actually in the market for a new opportunity,’ I answered, and thus my journey to find love began.”
So starts The One, a novel by Julia Argy, a University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program alum. The main character, Emily, embarks on a whim as a contender on a reality television show, which is designed to whittle a group of women down to the individual who the male love interest, Dylan, selects to marry. Emily describes the show and the book’s premise:
At the base level, this is all a psychological experiment with a desired economic outcome: trap thirty people together as they fight for a limited quantity of the same thing, something everyone wants, true love, and the result will be scintillating enough to attract millions of viewers to sell advertising. And that, the real hypothesis, has proven true, season after season.
Emily must learn how the program works as it goes along because she has not watched past seasons, so she takes a critical approach rather than suspending her disbelief. As Emily further reflects, “Maybe the first set of contestants are meant to showcase the vast scope of women who desire Dylan, like going to a big-box store where at the head of each aisle is a sample stand, enticing you down to the rest of the similar wares. I need to figure out what brand of woman I’m supposed to be.” The “brand” she turns out to be is not what she expects.
From the start, the circumstances feel artificial, down to the language used to describe them. Emily narrates that, “Miranda told me to call my time on the show an adventure or a journey, and never a process, situation, or circumstance.” Emily’s love-hate relationship with her producer, Miranda, both helps and hinders her as she navigates the structure of the show and the relentless filming. In one on-camera interview, Emily, who has never been in a serious relationship before, discusses her view of how love will happen for her:
“I think we’re in a unique circumstance. I think—” I stumble. “I think the person I’ll marry one day ultimately is choosing to pick me despite having the option to date other women in his life that he meets. This situation—”
“Journey,” Miranda corrects.
“This journey is a more explicit version of that choice.”
“Better,” she says, and continues to drill into me. “So do you think this journey won’t work for you?”
“I have every hope that I will come out of here with a strong, long-term relationship,” I say….
But Emily’s realizations along the way cause her view of love to evolve. She finds herself questioning the contest and asking deeper questions about relationships, such as “Why do people stay after cheating, why do people stay in relationships that aren’t serving them, why does everyone get so stuck in their own lives?”
The primary question throughout the book is, of course, which woman Dylan will choose as his ultimate co-star. The contestants are constantly vying for a dwindling number of places, and Emily cuts to the chase when on a date with Dylan:
“Can I ask you something?” I say. I wrap my legs around his hips, balancing back in his arms to get a good look at his face. His body shields mine from the camera. As he holds me up, his fingers skim across the scalloped edge of my underwear.
“Anything,” he says. “Always.”
“Do you know already? Who it’s going to be at the end of this?”
He smiles at me, all dimples. “I have a hunch.”
It is the uncertainty and suspense that makes the show—and the novel—especially compelling.
We recently caught up with Argy about her new book and writing.
Q: What brought you to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program?
A: Michigan was actually my top choice program, so I was so grateful to have been accepted. I wanted to go to a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program that was fully and equally funded for all the students, and at the time, the Helen Zell Writers’ Program also had a non-competitive-funded third-year fellowship, which was important to me.
Q: What have you been up to since finishing your MFA?
A: It’s only been two years since I got my MFA, so I’m still a pretty recent graduate. The first year after, I enjoyed the benefits of the aforementioned fellowship, moved back to Massachusetts, and finished up The One. In the last year, I’ve been working on the launch and publicity around that as my debut and am revising my second novel.
Q: When did you know that your idea for The One would become a novel? From that point, how long did it take to write and publish it?
A: Setting a novel on a reality dating show was a helpful container as I embarked on my first effort to write a novel. The book had a set structure and a finite scope, so once I decided that I wanted to engage with that setting, I knew it could work as a novel-length project with each chapter covering a week of the show. I started writing it as my master’s thesis in my MFA program in the fall of 2020, submitted the first full draft as my thesis in the spring of 2021, then revised and sold it during my fellowship the following year. It took around a little over a year to get published after that, and it ended up coming out in April 2023, so two and a half years total for the writing and publishing process, which, all in all for novels and publishing, was quick.
Q: Are you an avid watcher of reality dating shows like the character, Sam, or do you identify with Emily, who did not have prior knowledge of all the seasons and their goings-on, all designed to entertain? As Emily narrates, “I realize Sam’s distinct advantage: the knowledge of the earlier seasons ingrained in her mind. If I were her, I could shuffle through past contestants and see the grand algorithm of the season illuminated above me overhead, like those night-lights that project constellations on a child’s ceiling.” How did your level of familiarity with the premise help you write this novel?
A: Before writing the book, I was an avid consumer of reality dating shows, which spurred my interest in setting a novel there. I stopped watching them as I wrote the book because I didn’t want any accidental cross-pollination to happen. Since then, I’ve never returned despite enticing buzz around new seasons of “Love Is Blind,” “The Bachelor,” and “Love Island.” I felt like whatever questions I had about these shows that drew me in as a viewer – what they say, if anything, about contemporary dating culture, how people evaluate compatibility, how scarcity influences romance, etc. – I answered for myself through the process of writing The One.
Q: Emily reflects on her ideal partner: “[The producers] asked me to describe my ideal man while being loose and conversational. My mind went blank as I tried to picture him. The only man I could think of was Woody from Toy Story, so I described him: tall, loyal, resourceful, flexible, passionate, committed, down-to-earth. I thought it sounded pretty convincing, and apparently, they did, too.” Yet, there is a twist that neither Emily nor the producers see coming, and the book’s description says little about it. How do you talk about this revelation without revealing it when discussing the book?
A: I usually try to talk about the relationship dynamics in terms of the greater thematic arc of the novel. Emily’s relationship with Dylan, the lead of the reality show she is on, is fully created and maintained for the public eye. This introduces a level of artificiality into all of their interactions, despite it being a “reality” dating show. The other relationship Emily has in the novel is, for a variety of reasons, predicated on privacy. The contrast of these two dynamics is ultimately part of what spurs Emily to decide on the kind of life she wants to lead.
Q: At what point in your writing did you figure out who Emily would fall in love with?
A: I knew the premise and ending of the novel before I started writing, so I always had an understanding [of] what Emily’s “journey” [is] so to speak, as I worked on the book. Most of the work of writing for me is transferring the story in my head into a coherent narrative on the page, and of course, my vision is always perfect, and in writing, it somehow becomes messy, flawed, and difficult to execute.
Q: During the novel, the contestants find out about a mass shooting that targets women. The tragedy creates a moment for the women to reflect on their own challenges as women. The women also debate how the show itself is a system. Which part do you see as the system—the contest, societal expectations, the goal of falling in love, or something else—and why?
A: The setting of a reality dating show is both a reflection of our society and also a consumable product that ends up shaping our ideas about what dating looks like. It operates in a tense space of influenced and influencer, both a system unto itself and a cog in a larger culture around gendered expectations, romance, etc. The women in The One think about this dual role as the book progresses, and as the machinations of both the show and the culture that were previously obscure and insidious become clearer as they are constantly immersed in it, surveilled, and expected to perform to meet its standards.
Q: Let’s talk about Miranda as a character. She is endearing, appalling, smart, and pathetic at various times. How did you as the author feel about her when you were writing The One?
A: The producers on the show are in a very fraught position. They’re smart, personable, and incredibly close to the contestants, but they are also trying to make engaging television. Imagine going to drinks with a friend, and they tell you about a terrible car accident they were in as a child, and you feel empathy and comfort them, but also in the back of your mind know that if you sent them away in a car tomorrow on a curvy road and they had a mental breakdown, it could give you a great opportunity for career advancement. That’s the situation Miranda is in as a producer, and she has been doing it season after season. There’s a complicated moral calculus that happens to allow a person to continue in a role like that, and Miranda’s personality had to be equally complex in order to hold all those ideas at once.
Q: What are you reading this summer?
A: This summer, I’ve reread Motherhood by Sheila Heti and Full Surrogacy Now by Sophie Lewis as research for my next book. On the reading list to go: The Group by Mary McCarthy, Linea Nigra by Jazmina Berrera, and all about love by bell hooks.
Q: With your new novel published, what are you writing next?
A: Based on the above reading list, I think you can probably guess what my next book is about! I am currently working on the second draft.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.