Bound to Happen (Ultimo Press 2023) is a whip-smart, witty, warm rom-com about two people who have never met although we suspect from the very first pages that their connection is bound to happen. A debut by Jonathon Shannon, this novel takes its cue from the chance encounters that never occur, and the parallel lines that never meet, as described in The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig. The book came into my hands perhaps by happenstance, or luck, or timing, or six degrees of separation, but I’m so glad it did, as it is the perfect feel-good read that is also intelligent, sexy, complex and thoughtful.

Sophie is an astrophysics PhD candidate who can narrow the mysteries of the universe down to cold, hard facts. Science is the central core of her being, not fate or destiny. Her private ambitions (as a child, she dreamt of being an astronaut), her friendships and family relationships, her slightly illicit liaison with the handsome undergrad assigned to her research project – none of these changes her mind about the immutability of scientific facts.

But the dynamics of her solid theoretical framework are tested when she receives a random question about string theory from not a science undergrad, but a music student and aspiring songwriter, Tom, who is deeply into fate and what is meant to be. He’s writing a love song for his partner, a successful recording artist, whose overseas travel tests the boundaries of their love. Tom’s curious mind and incessant questions to a nameless science bod in the physics department fuel his determination to write the perfect love song. But what does that mean? Does fate play a part? Are we destined to find our other half? Or is everything calculated and predetermined and unable to be swayed by emotion and feeling?

Tom and Sophie have never met, but they come to know each other through this series of serious and inquiring question and answer emails about the universe and its capacity. And in a several years long tantalising dance of sliding door moments, the two unknowingly orbit each other, often coming so close, but never actually colliding.

Shannon has a close hold on the reins of his writing and pulls taut in exactly the right moments. The tension is palpable. Small, tell-tale signs – a whispered name, a colour, an Uber encounter, a missed connection, a misunderstanding, a maleficent force, a random sighting, a door just closing, a coffee order mix-up … there are so many small sliding door moments in this book that will keep the reader on the edge of their seat, thinking ‘surely, THIS is the moment…’ only to discover the opportunity slipping away or the potential fading. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where two protagonists are SO CLOSE to meeting without it happening. Shannon draws out the suspense and tension to an unbelievable degree.

And yet, despite the nature of the genre, the easy, light-hearted story, the heart-warming content, this novel is elevated by the sharp intelligence and informed scientific knowledge at its core. Sophie is bright and talented but also curious and willing to explore hypotheses. Tom is a messy musical genius who nevertheless wants to write songs that make sense in a scientific way; not rubbish pop, but smart indie writing that contains a message about love that can be scientifically proven, or at least discussed in a theoretical way.

If you love novels by Toni Jordan and Graeme Simsion, with their clever, shrewd, quick and keen wit, you will enjoy this book. It reminded me a lot of Minnie Dark’s Star-Crossed Lovers, albeit with less astrology and more astrophysics, but with that same beautiful sliding doors scenario that makes us wonder how many people in the world – in the universe – might be our soul mates if only different decisions were made on different days. The butterfly effect in reverse.

This is the perfect rom-com for intelligent readers who like their romance served with a side of science and reality cuddled up with randomness and that accidental fleeting moment that changes your life (or alternatively doesn’t happen, and doesn’t change anything). I especially love the line: ‘Layers of the unlikely that had collapsed into the inevitable.’