With Valentine’s Day just gone, what better way of celebrating love in all its glory than by reading Almost Love, the upcoming novel from Louise O’Neill.
Confession time: I haven’t read either of Louise O’Neill’s previous two well-received novels. Only Ever Yours and Asking For It were marketed as Young Adult novels but this isn’t the reason for my recalcitrance. My TBR pile is an unwieldy Tower of Babel so when I was asked by the good people at HeadStuff to read her latest I jumped at the chance. Almost Love is her first novel that is marketed for adults, and thematically it’s easy to see why.
The novel focuses on Sarah Fitzpatrick, a young art teacher who, when the novel opens, is in a relationship with Oisin. It soon becomes apparent that all is not well in the relationship and as the novel progresses we start to learn why. The story alternates between past – Then – and present – Now – and with it, the voice in which the story is told. The Now sections are told in the third person while the Then< sections are told in the first person. It’s an interesting approach that serves the novel and the story well.
We learn about Sarah’s relationship with Oisin, how she resents his wealth and the fact that his mother, Oonagh, a famous artist, reminds her of her own failings as artist. It’s literally a case of those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. In the past sections the focus is on Sarah’s relationship with her friend, Fionn, from art school and, more importantly, her relationship with Matthew Brennan, the father of one of her students. And it is this relationship that defines Sarah throughout the book. The sexual politics at play are beautifully sketched by O’Neill as we try to understand why Sarah would stay with such a man. It’s obvious from the get-go that he isn’t interested in a relationship with Sarah and is only interested in using her body for his own gratification. They meet regularly in a cheap hotel because being seen with her could add complications to his life. These encounters are brutal and short and Sarah’s need for something more – something Matthew cannot and won’t give her – is at times unbearable.
Meanwhile, as the novel progresses we get a better sense of who Sarah is and why she seems to be so accepting of the treatment meted out by Matthew and why she treats those who love her so abhorrently. We always see Sarah in the context of her relationship to other people: her father, her best friend Aisling, her boyfriend – almost all of it negative. In fact, one of the strongest elements of the book for me is how O’Neill managed to make her central character so thoroughly unlikable – there were times I just wanted to shake her and tell her to cop herself on – and yet so engaging that you want her to change and see the mistakes that she’s making. But we’ve all made mistakes in our lives. We’ve all had tunnel vision about someone we loved. We’ve all ignored advice from friends and family. Sarah isn’t unique, but O’Neill’s raw and honest prose makes for uncomfortable reading at times. Another nice touch are the chapters showing the text messages sent by both parties. You can almost feel the desperation and faux joviality in Sarah’s texts as they go increasingly unanswered. It’s both painful and pitiable to see.
Almost Love is a novel full of power dynamics: sex, class, race (Oisin is biracial), rural/urban, wealth. It is an honest account of just how one sided and painful and ridiculous and heart-breaking and all-consuming and selfish love can be – to the detriment of everything and everyone else in your life. And that’s something you won’t see on a Hallmark card.