ALMOST LOVE by Louise O’Neill
Riverrun, March 2018 (UK)
Almost Love follows Sarah, an aspiring artist who’s put her ambitions aside to become an art teacher at a private school, and it chronicles her highly dysfunctional relationship with one of her students’ fathers.
Asking For It is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, so Almost Love had a lot to live up to. I actually expected to like it even more than Asking For It, as I prefer adult to YA for the most part. So I was surprised when it fell a bit short of Asking For It for me, but ultimately I did find it to be every bit as engrossing and incisive as I know Louise O’Neill is capable of.
The striking thing about O’Neill’s writing is the way she’s able to elucidate these hard-hitting realities that are so common to the female experience, but so often underrepresented. The reason Sarah stays with Matthew in this book is one that I see so little in fiction and so much in real life. The reader has certain expectations from the beginning: this relationship is clearly terrible, so there must be a concrete reason that Sarah is putting herself through this. The sex must be amazing (it isn’t), or Sarah gets something in return – money or social status (she doesn’t), or it’s clear that Sarah and Matthew love each other and their love is doomed by factors outside their control (this is not the case). Sarah stays with Matthew because his wanting her validates her sense of self-worth. Louise O’Neill confronts head-on the fact that women are socialized to believe that our bodies are not for our own pleasure; our own feelings are secondary; maintaining the relationship, however terrible, at all costs should be our main objective.
As with Asking For It, the real triumph of Almost Love is the protagonist’s unlikability. Sarah is awful, and O’Neill doesn’t skirt around that. We aren’t supposed to ‘like’ Sarah, we aren’t supposed to want to take her out to dinner or bond with her. The fact that Sarah is an atrocious friend is pretty clearly established. What works about it is how O’Neill, again, is challenging this conception that a woman’s worth is tied up in her likability, in how she’s perceived by others. Yes, Sarah creates a lot of her own misfortunes here, but this situation is so intrinsically tied with how women are socialized from an early age, so it’s important to look at the bigger picture here while considering Sarah’s own situation. Maybe Sarah doesn’t deserve the world, but she does deserve common human decency in the way she’s treated by others. It’s not a particularly earth-shattering concept, but it’s one that O’Neill gets to the heart of deftly.
Where it fell a bit short for me was in being very dialogue-heavy, it did a lot of telling rather than showing. I thought the prose in Asking For It was quite mature for YA, but it was so startlingly similar in Almost Love that it almost suffered for that comparison I had in my head – that this worked for a YA novel, and I was expecting something a bit more… elevated here? Which is partially my own personal hangup with genre expectations that I’m trying to break away from, but anyway. This didn’t blow me away and shatter my soul the way Asking For It did, but it’s still an important and engaging book that I didn’t want to put down for a second.