Olive Smith is an applicant for Stanford’s biology Ph.D program. After the interview with Dr. Aysegul Aslan, she ends up in a bathroom nearby unable to see and trying to wash out her eyes because she put in expired contacts.
She meets “The Guy” there, who she assumes is a Ph.D student there. As they strike up a conversation, she tells him that her name is Olive and talks about why she’s applying to the program. She tells him that she wants to do it in order to research a specific topic.
A few weeks later, Olive is accepted into the program.
Chapter 1 (Two years, eleven months later)
Years later, Olive is now 26 and a Ph.D. student in Dr. Aslan’s lab. Olive has just kissed a random stranger (in order to trick her best friend, Anh, into thinking she’s on a date) — only to realize that the “stranger” is actually Dr. Adam Carlson, a 34-year-old tenured and highly-respected professor in her program with a reputation for being notorious moody, mean and hypercritical.
After they pull away, Adam accuses her of assaulting him. Olive insists she asked him and he said yes, but he says he merely snorted. Finally, she explains that her friend Anh had hit it off with a guy she’d been dating, Jeremy. Olive broke things off with Jeremy, but Anh felt too bad to go out with Jeremy. To make Anh feel better about it, Olive lied to Anh about dating someone and being on a date tonight. When Anh showed up at the lab, Olive needed to kiss someone so Anh would believe she was on a date.
Finally, Olive apologizes and leaves. She doesn’t notice that Adam had called her by her name (which she hadn’t brought up in this conversation).
A few days later, Olive is still embarrassed by what happened. However, she figures that she’d never crossed paths with Adam before then, so perhaps she wouldn’t cross paths with him again. Meanwhile, Olive is preoccupied with needing to find more lab space for her research on early detection of pancreatic cancer. Today, she also finds out Tom Benton, a well-known cancer researcher and an associate professor at Harvard, is interested in potentially allowing her to carry out her research at his lab at Harvard. He’s going to be in town in two weeks and wants to meet with her.
When Anh sees her, she confronts Olive about kissing Adam Carlson. Olive thinks back to how they met since they were the only two non-cis-white-male students in their class. Beyond that, Anh was her biggest support and best friend.
Today, Anh demands to know why Olive is dating Dr. Carlson. This conversation is interrupted when Adam walks in. He plays along and pretends that he and Olive are together. After they make formal introductions, he tells her to call him Adam, in case her friend Anh is around. Later, when Olive talks to Anh again, Olive continues to pretend she’s dating Adam, and she once again encourages Anh to date Jeremy.
On campus, Olive starts to notice that people are treating her differently and with some level of curiosity. When her roommate, Malcom, demands to know why she didn’t tell him about dating Dr. Carlson, Olive realize that everyone know about her lie. Olive goes to Adam’s lab to tell him what’s going on, and she apologizes to him for it.
Olive notes that he seems very at ease with everyone believing that they’re dating, and she wonders why. Finally, he admits that Stanford considers him to be a “flight risk” (that he wants to leave them for another institution) and that they’ve frozen some of his research funds because of it. Part of the issue is that he’s recently gotten a large grant with one of his collaborator’s at another institution, and the department is worried he’s planning on moving there. He hopes that the dating rumors will make them think he’s more likely to stick around since he’s dating someone here.
A few days later, Olive goes to Adam’s office and tells him she wants to proceed with pretending that they’re dating. Olive notices that she’s been treated much better by everyone since the rumor started. (Apart from Malcom, who dislikes Adam Carlson, and has been shunning her.) Adam explains that he’s looked into it and there’s no issue with it, though he can’t serve in any supervisory capacity for her or serve on her thesis committee or be a part of any decisions if she’s nominated for a fellowship or other awards.
They decide to set some ground rules for their fake-dating arrangement. They decide to be fake-dating while on-campus only, so no personal engagements. Olive stipulates that there’ll be no sex. They also agree not to date others in the interim, since it will make things messy. And they agree that they should get coffee or something regularly to make things believable.
They plan to continue their fake-dating until September 29, roughly a month from now, which is the day after the department’s budget review. Their first coffee “date” is planned for Wednesday at 10 AM.
Later, Olive talks to Malcom, who is still upset with her. Malcom comes from a long line of well-known scientists, and he dislikes that Adam Carlson’s criticism of his research had made his life so difficult. Olive confides in Malcom that they’re merely fake-dating and that she barely knows Adam. She says that he’s just helping her out with the Anh/Jeremy situation (and she doesn’t mention Adam’s reasons for participating).
On Wednesday, Olive and Adam have their first fake-date at the coffee house. They ask each other some basic questions, and Adam pays for her order.
The next week, they meet up again, though Olive is running late since she was getting ready for a meeting she has with Tom Benton later that day. Meanwhile, Adam is a little moody because his department chair has still not agreed to release his research funds. They discuss attending the fall biosciences picnic together so that his department chair can see that they’re together.
They’re interrupted when a friend of Adam’s walks in and greets him warmly. Adam introduces the man to Olive as his friend and collaborator — who turns out to be Tom Benton.
Dr. Benton reveals that he’s heard about Adam’s romantic exploits all the way at Harvard, and he’s surprised to hear the rumors about Adam’s new girlfriend being true. Olive also awkwardly tells Dr. Benton that they have a meeting planned for later that day. Tom is delighted to find out that his meeting is with Adam’s new girlfriend.
The three of them sit down to chat. As Tom asks her about her research, Adam rephrases it to help Olive organize her thoughts when he sees that she’s struggling to come up with an answer. Olive then tells Tom about her research on biomarkers in order to more easily and cheaply diagnose pancreatic cancer. As Tom inquires about her reasons for doing her research, Olive reluctantly admits that it’s because her mother had pancreatic cancer.
Finally, Tom asks Olive to spend two weeks writing up a report on the current state of her research. He says that he’ll make a determination of whether to give her the lab space and cover her research expenses depending on what he reads in that report.
When Tom steps away, Olive and Adam discuss that if she decides to go to Harvard then she needs to keep it a secret until the end of their arrangement, otherwise it’ll make Adam look worse. They also agree not to tell Tom that they’re only fake-dating.
The next day, Olive attends a well-attended talk that Tom is giving on campus. The auditorium is so packed that there’s no space anywhere. Anh convinces Olive to sit in Adam’s lap for the duration of the talk.
Afterwards, Olive and Anh head back to the biology building. Olive talks about the report she’s preparing for Tom and the presentation she needs to work on for a conference (the “SBD Conference”) coming up in Boston. Meanwhile, Anh is working on organizing an outreach event for BIPOC women in STEM for the conference.
As they walk back, they see that there’s a traffic jam involving a stopped car blocking an exit. Then they see Cherie, the department secretary, talking to Adam. Adam then proceeds to physically push a car out of the way to relieve the jam. Anh encourages Olive to go over and give him a kiss for his efforts. After some awkward negotiation with Adam, they kiss.
Olive is working on her report for Tom when Greg Cohen, one of Dr. Aslan’s other Ph.D. candidates, barges in, clearly agitated. Chase, another one of their lab mates, walks in uneasily after him. When Olive asks Greg what’s wrong, he angrily responds that Carlson is on his dissertation committee and he failed his proposal. They ask Olive whether she knew he was going to fail Greg, and Olive insists she didn’t know. Greg then yells at Olive and calls her selfish for not caring how Adam makes everyone’s lives miserable. Greg then storms off.
Later that day, Olive texts Adam. She asks him about failing Greg. She argues that he should be nicer, but Adam is unapologetic. He insists that his job is to make sure that students produce useful research. Olive gets frustrated texts profanity at him, and he doesn’t respond.
A few days later, Olive is on her way to the biosciences picnic, where she’ll be seeing Adam after their tense exchange. She, Anh, Jeremy and Malcom go together and are quite late. When they arrive, they see Adam playing Ultimate Frisbee shirtless, showing off his six-pack. Olive is surprised to find herself “viscerally attracted” to Adam.
As they put on sunscreen, Anh gives Olive way too much sunscreen. Meanwhile, the frisbee from the game lands near her. When Adam comes over to retrieve the frisbee, Anh offers Olive’s excess sunscreen to Adam. He accepts, and Olive rubs the sunscreen on him. Olive also apologizes for what she texted him the other day.
Tom then comes over and brings up that Adam will be going to Boston soon for a few days.
Olive is in the break room at night when she runs into Adam next. Olive is working on her report for Tom, but there’s a section she’s having trouble with since her lab equipment seems to be messing up. They chat and share snacks. Olive finds herself wondering why he’s single.
Olive also finds herself telling him about her mother and her death. She describes how, when she was 15, her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer too late and only had a few weeks left to live by then. Olive also says that her father was never in the picture and her grandparents were deceased, so she was sent into the foster system until she was emancipated at 16.
When she mentions needing to get back to work, Adam offers to let her use his lab equipment if she needs it. He also gives her some advice on the Western blot she’s working with to make sure she’s doing it correctly. Before Olive leaves, she asks Adam why he’s single, but before he can really answer, Jeremy walks in and interrupts them.
On Saturday, Olive sends in her report to Tom. He responds by asking her to meet to talk about it at Adam’s house (where he’s staying) on Tuesday before he leaves for Boston. At Adam’s house, she and Tom chat about her report for about 20 minutes. Before she leaves, Tom offers her a spot at Harvard for the next year, and Olive is thrilled.
Adam gives her a ride back to campus. He talks about how excited he is about the research he and Tom are working on. As they chat, Adam says something that The Guy she’d met in the bathroom all those years ago had said to her. Olive realizes then that Adam was The Guy she’d met. She marvels at how she’d wondered about The Guy for years. Olive then suggests that go celebrate her lab spot and him and Tom’s grant.
They agree to get coffee. Before then, she convinces him to go with her to get flu shots at the setup on campus, all the while she teases him for his fear of needles.
On Wednesday, Olive and Adam are texting and teasing each other when Anh comes in and comments on how in love with Adam she is. Anh says that she feels better about dating Jeremy, since she sees how much Olive likes Adam. As Anh leaves, it dawns on Olive that Anh is right.
Olive soon texts Malcolm asking to talk. When they get together, she tells him about how she thinks she’s fallen for Adam. She also tells him that she thinks that Adam was The Guy that she met all those years ago. Malcolm suggests that perhaps Adam feels the same way. Olive doesn’t think that’s the case, but moreover, she says scared of being vulnerable and possibly giving up the friendship she and Adam currently have if she’s wrong. Olive also says that everyone she cares about ends up leaving her — citing her mother, father and grandparents.
Olive says she’s certain she doesn’t want to say anything to Adam about her feelings — but then she turns around and sees Adam standing there.
When Adam acknowledges that he overheard her, Olive quickly lies and said she was talking about some other guy she has a crush on. Their conversation is interrupted by Dr. Holden Rodriguez, who is going to Boston with Tom and Adam. Dr. Rodriguez knows Olive since he was on her graduate advisory committee her first year.
As they talk, Holden explains that he and Adam are old friends. They grew up together because their parents were all diplomats. Holden tells Olive about how his boyfriend dumped him just before prom, so Adam went as his date instead.
After Holden leaves, Adam comments that Holden speaks highly of Olive and her research. Adam also explains a comment Holden made about Tom, saying that the two don’t really get along. He then tells Olive that she should just tell Jeremy how she feels, incorrectly assuming that the mystery crush Olive was referring to is Jeremy.
Malcolm continues trying to convince Olive to admit her feelings to Adam, but Olive refuses. With Adam out of town, she feels his absence. When Adam finally texts her on Sunday, she feels even worse about her stupid lie about liking someone else.
On campus, she runs into Holden, who mentions how glad he is that Adam and Olive got together. Holden days that Adam had talked about someone he wanted to ask out for years, and he’s glad Adam finally did it. When he says that, Olive thinks about how there must be someone else out there that Adam likes, then, since they only really met a couple weeks ago.
Holden also warns her to watch out when it comes to Tom and to watch Adam’s back, since he doesn’t trust Tom.
A little later, Olive is informed that her research has been accepted for the SBD conference as a panel presentation with faculty. Olive feels overwhelmed, since graduate students very rarely are selected for oral presentations. She goes to her advisor, Dr. Aslan, and explains that she’s terrible at talking. Of course, Dr. Aslan just gives her some encouragement and tells Olive she’ll help her practice her presentation.
Afterwards, Olive tells Malcom and Anh, who also volunteer to help her practice. They also mention, however, that they each got invited to stay with people in Boston for the conference (Anh with Jeremy and Malcolm with some friends who had a spare room), so they won’t be rooming with Olive. Anh says she figured Olive would stay with Adam.
Olive is trying to sort out some living arrangements for Boston when Adam, who is back in town now, comes up to her. She tells him about having trouble finding accommodations in Boston. Adam comments that there’s probably not anything left in the vicinity by now, but she could stay in his room at the conference center. He adds that he has the room for the whole conference, but he will only be using the room two nights, so they’ll only overlap for one night most likely.
When she tells him about her presentation, he offers to look over her slides. She also invites him to her talk, and she thinks about how one of the reasons she likes him is that she always feels like he’s on her side.
At the hotel in Boston, Olive takes the empty bed, and she rehearses the talk she’s about to give in a few hours. When Adam arrives, she thanks him for all the help he gave regarding her presentation.
He asks when her presentation is so he can attend, but it turns out it overlaps with the Keynote speech, which he is giving along with two other people. She offers to show him the recording of it afterwards.
When Olive goes to do her panel presentation, she sees that Tom is on the same panel. She gives her portion of the talk, and it goes well. Malcolm and Anh are there to cheer her on.
Afterwards, the room empties out, and it’s just her and Tom. As they talk, she notices him moving closer until he tries to kiss her. When she pushes him away, he keeps trying. Finally, he says that she’s clearly someone who sleeps around to get ahead, and so they both know she’ll sleep with him, too, for the same reason. He also says that she only got on this panel because someone wanted to kiss-up to Adam Carlson.
He also says that Adam is the reason he accepted Olive into his lab. When Olive threatens to tell Adam about this, he says that Adam won’t believe her word against his. Olive also says she won’t go work in his lab, but Tom says she knows it’s the best option for her, and if she doesn’t then he’ll just replicate her research since he already knows all about it.
When Adam gets back to the hotel, Olive is crying. She tries to pretend nothing is wrong, but fails at it. Finally, she lies and tells him that she’s upset because she overheard someone saying that her research was “derivative” and that she was only chosen because of Adam.
Adam comforts her, and then he says he has an idea for where they should go instead.
Holding her hand, they walk past all the people at the department social and instead head out to dinner. Adam asks what she wants to eat, and Olive sees an all-you-can-eat sushi place and wants to go.
After dinner, as they head back, Olive’s heels are hurting her, so Adam gamely picks her up and brings her to their room. She then suggests that they watch a movie. Olive goes to grab a quick shower, and Adam offers her a t-shirt since she forgot to pack pajamas.
When Olive’s mind wanders back to being called mediocre (by Tom, though she doesn’t tell Adam that), Adam tells her about how his advisor had once told him he wouldn’t amount to anything because of a mistake he made. He says that he had started preparing applications for law school as a result, since the comment shook his confidence. However, Holden and Tom (who also trained under the same advisor) convinced him to stick with science.
Adam says that later he realized that his advisor was abusive and a bad mentor who created a toxic environment. Comparatively, Adam says that he is critical since he wants students to be better, but it isn’t about belittling them as people or cutting down their self-worth. Adam also says that no one ever reported his advisor’s behavior because he was short-listed for a Nobel Prize, and they didn’t think anyone would listen. Adam also mentions how Tom had helped mediate thing with him and his advisor, so he was grateful to Tom for that.
Adam then tells Olive that the abstracts submitted to SBD go through a blind review process, so they definitely didn’t choose her because of him.
Finally, Olive moves to kiss Adam, but before anything can happen, he stops her. He points out that she’s upset and staying in his room and that the situation feels coercive to him. When Olive says she’s fine, he points out that she said she was in love with someone else and that he doesn’t want to regret this later.
Olive convinces him that she’s fine with the situation, and soon things get intimate.
They have sex.
Afterwards, Olive asks Adam about a book he’s reading. He says it’s in Dutch and that he learned it as a kid. He also says that his parents were busy all the time and that he was mostly raised by au pairs. They then talk more about their childhoods.
As they chat, Adam finally tells Olive that he might be going to Harvard. The reason he’s leaving the conference early is to go interview with them. He thinks that working together with Tom in the same lab would make them much more productive. He also mentions that he could show her around Boston when she’s there.
Olive wakes up to a barrage of texts from Anh and Malcolm. When she finally talks to them, it turns out the Malcolm hooked up with Holden at the department social. Malcolm also says that Holden mentioned that Adam’s funds had been released (though Adam hadn’t mentioned it to Olive).
That night, Olive meets up with Adam. He wants to go out and have dinner, but Olive breaks things off with him, since she doesn’t know what to do about the Tom situation. She thinks that taking herself out of the equation is the best thing for him.
As she starts to leave, they end up kissing, but he pulls away, and she leaves.
Olive spends the next day crying. Then, determined not to send up at Harvard, Olive takes Adam’s advice to reach out to people through her advisor and asks Dr. Aslan to e-mail various people she’d met at the conference to see if they’d be interested in her research.
Dr. Aslan agrees, and also asks to see her speech. As Olive edits the video recording, Malcolm talks about how he went on a first date with Holden, but they ended up running into his entire family (since they are all science junkies who attend science conferences).
As she’s editing, Olive realizes she recorded her upsetting conversation with Tom. Malcolm and Anh hear her listening to it. Once they’ve listened to the whole thing, they insist that Olive needs to tell Adam about it. Finally, Malcolm fills Anh in on what was really going on with Olive and Adam. However, they both agree it’s clear that Olive has feelings for Adam and that Adam would want to know about this. Still, Olive knows how important the collaboration with Tom is to Adam, and she is reluctant to complicate things for him.
They decide to call Holden to ask for advice. Olive asks Holden what he thinks about Adam moving to Boston and working with Tom. Holden says that he doesn’t trust Tom. He says he thinks there was a weird dynamic where Tom was secretly sabotaging Adam during grad school and then defending him. He thinks that Tom likes Adam’s loyalty towards him and having influence over him. Holden also tells them that he thinks Tom and Adam’s collaboration benefits Tom more than Adam. Finally, Holden implies that he thinks the only reason Adam is considering leaving Stanford is because Olive is going to Harvard.
Olive tracks down Adam’s location at a dinner with some Harvard people, including Tom. When he sees her, he gets up and asks what’s wrong. Tom comes over to try to get Adam to sit back down, but Adam insists on talking to Olive. Finally, Olive starts playing the video. Adam grows furious as he realizes what happened. He tells Tom that he’s going to kill him and goes after him, but Olive tells Adam that he’s not worth it.
As the Harvard people demand an explanation, Adam ignores them and kisses Olive. He then tells Olive to send him the recording immediately and then goes to talk to the Harvard people.
A few days later, Olive is back home, and Adam is on his way back to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Olive has received responses from four cancer researchers who are all interested in her research.
When Adam gets back, Holden insists on a double date. Adam reluctantly agrees. When they all sit down, they address the fact that Malcolm still has misgivings about Adam because of Adam’s harsh criticism of his work. Adam tells Malcolm that it wasn’t personal.
As they joke around about pumpkin spiced flavored foods, Holden mentions how Adam has liked Olive for years. Olive corrects him, saying they’ve only been dating for a few weeks, but Holden says that they met three years ago and that he’s liked Olive ever since. Olive then realizes that Adam was definitely the The Guy (from three years ago) and that he did remember her.
After dinner, Olive and Adam head home. Adam tells Olive that Harvard is going to fire Tom and that there will be other disciplinary actions. Olive then tells Adam that she remembered him, too, from all those years ago. But she didn’t piece it together until later, and she admits that she didn’t say anything once she figured it out.
Finally, she tells him that she loves him (in broken Dutch).
Epilogue (10 Months Later)
Ten months later, it’s the 1-year anniversary of their first kiss. Olive and Adam go to the lab and recreate and their kiss at precisely the same time as last year.