book review: What Red Was by Rosie Price



WHAT RED WAS by Rosie Price
Crown, 2019


[trigger warning for sexual assault]  I think this is a very interesting, very uneven book.  What Red Was follows Kate and Max, two friends who meet during the first week of university and become inseparable.  They come from very different backgrounds – Kate is from a poor single-parent household and Max’s family is large and affluent – and after they graduate university, Kate’s life is shattered when she’s raped during a party at Max’s family home.

From reading this book’s summary and seeing its comparisons to Normal People by Sally Rooney and Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, I expected two things from What Red Was: a nuanced exploration of the aftermath of sexual assault (and Price mostly delivered here – more on this in a minute), and alternating perspectives between Kate and Max.  What I didn’t expect was that Max’s family would feature so heavily into the narrative.  We do indeed hear from both Max and Kate, but we also hear from Max’s mom, Max’s cousin, Max’s uncle, Max’s father, Max’s sister, all of whom have very generic Rich People Problems.  There’s talk of depression, alcoholism, inheritance drama, all of which in theory has the potential to be compelling, but none of it really is.  I can only imagine that Rosie Price structured her book this way because she wanted this to be more robust than ‘a book about rape’; the result is that characters and stories which should merely exist to contextualize Kate’s own narrative end up overpowering it.

The other problem which I encountered early on was that I didn’t love Rosie Price’s prose, which felt to me very conversational and millennial to the point where it distracted when we were in the heads of older characters.

However, when this book did focus on Kate, it excelled.  This is a brilliant examination not only of the long-lasting physical toll taken by sexual assault, but also of the delicate balance that every victim must go through of deciding who to share their story with, and how much of their story to share.  This isn’t a book that advocates that victims not speak out, but it is an incredibly sympathetic look on how much more challenging it can be in reality than in theory.

I also thought Rosie Price did an excellent job at writing Kate and Max’s friendship – a lot of the foundation of their relationship was glossed over given that four years of university were covered in about fifty pages, but I still found myself believing them and sympathizing with the extent to which Kate was concerned with Max’s feelings.

Ultimately, I thought this was an important and nuanced book when it zeroed in on its central topic, but it did meander a bit too much for my liking.

You can pick up a copy of What Red Was here on Book Depository.

11 thoughts on “book review: What Red Was by Rosie Price

  1. I totally get your criticisms for this one and I had my issues with it too. It worked a little better for me overall, but in fairness, the positives I remember when I think back on it now are all the things you praised.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it was a mixture of humanizing and contextualizing – portraying them as ‘ordinary people’ so they wouldn’t seem like caricatures, and also framing the reasons why it was so difficult for Kate to speak out. But I think she took the book way too far in that direction, to the point where it stopped being about Kate and more about the rest of them and that didn’t work for me at all. I assume you’ve read Asking For It by Louise O’Neill? If not, I’d definitely recommend that one instead!


  2. Great review! I’m still interested in the “nuanced exploration of the aftermath of sexual assault” aspect so I think I’ll still pick this up, but it’s good to know other elements fall by the wayside.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s definitely worth reading! But yes, managed expectations are good. I think I was expecting another Asking For It but I think Price’s ambitious were loftier on a narrative level and as a result the book wasn’t half as impressive as O’Neill’s. But still good!

      Liked by 1 person

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