‘A Raw, Unflinching Reflection On Our Obsession With Being Loved’: Louise O’Neill’s Almost Love (Review)
I think my favourite thing about Louise O’Neill’s work is that it makes me really uncomfortable. I know, I know but hear me out. I read her books voraciously, feeling uneasy throughout. I put the book down and sit with it for a while until it comes- that feeling of realisation, vindication, knowing that the way I see the world has changed a little bit. That’s what keeps me coming back every time.
Ever since her debut with Only Ever Yours, followed by Asking for It, the book that launched a national conversation about consent, O’Neill has made a career out of making us face the uncomfortable. Almost Love, her first offering to adult readers, is no exception. It follows Sarah, a struggling artist who is living in Dublin as a secondary school teacher, juggling her dwindling relationship with her boyfriend Oisín, uncomfortable conversations with her father, and the gnawing memory of her ex (if you can call him an ex) Matthew.
The story follows Sarah’s continued obsession with Matthew, an older man with whom she had a sexual relationship years before, that she just can’t seem to get over. The book flips between Sarah’s life previously and how she came to meet the man that would affect her for years to come, and her life in the present day, struggling to maintain her personal relationships with ripples of Matthew running through them.
Speaking to the Irish Times last weekend, O’Neill touched on the idea of likeability and how women and girls are bred to always be attractive. “I think the reason I keep coming back to this is that I feel it so strongly. I have to really watch myself, the urge to be charming, and make this person like me, and really win them over.” she said. The theme of likeability and attractiveness runs through all of O’Neill’s work to date. The main characters believe that how their lives will progress depends on how attractive they are to the opposite sex, whether in a literal sense in Only Ever Yours or more subtly in Asking for It.
What rips main character Sarah apart in the book is the idea that she is not ‘interesting’ or ‘sexy’ enough to keep the experienced Matthew Brennan. It’s an uncomfortable idea because as modern women, we constantly tell ourselves and each other that our worth does not depend on physical beauty, and certainly not on a man’s opinion. But come across any group of teenagers vying for each other’s attention and you’ll see what Sarah sees in the book; young girls “already burdened with the necessity of being beautiful”. Young girls seem to learn early on that their worth depends on their attractiveness – and Louise O’Neill is helping them to un-learn that, one paragraph at a time.
O’Neill forces us to confront the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden; vulnerability, obsessiveness, irrationality, desperation. Sarah is not a likable character- she does and says things in her story that are unacceptable. But as much as we may hate to admit it, we recognise parts of ourselves in her and her actions. Almost Love is a raw, unflinching reflection on our obsession with being loved and how society molds women to compete for that love. It’s an exciting transition to adult fiction from Ireland’s most exciting Young Adult writer. A must-read.
Almost Love is released 1st March 2018
Image: Louise O’Neill via Twitter