Dymphna Nugent’s weekly book review for the Waterford News & Star in conjunction with The Book Centre, John Roberts Square
LOUISE O’Neill rose to the top of the Irish charts with her young adult books, including ‘Asking for it’. The success of her earlier novels lay with the relatability of the characters and indeed the shock factor of much of what she detailed. Yet the Cork writer has aimed her reach even higher with the first of her adult novels ‘Almost Love’ and she has brought the character of art-teacher Sarah Fitzpatrick to life. Ultimately, Tipperary born Sarah becomes a little itchy and restless in her relationship with Oisin and a chance encounter with a real-estate tycoon, the much older father of one of her students, sees Sarah stray in her relationship.
The narrative straddles the line between past and present and the decline of the relationship between Sarah and Oisin becomes glaringly obvious, fuelled by the sexual frisson mounting between Sarah and Matthew Brennan. Initially, the texts between both are harmless and flirtatious. Those texts then progress to bordering on inappropriate, until eventually it is undeniable that the affair will happen between Sarah and this man, some 20 years her senior.
They meet in cheap hotel rooms, their sex is heady, passionate, forbidden, exciting and, yet, her emotions are increasingly swelling. What Sarah wants is not what Matthew can offer and yet she returns each time, her infinite capacity for hope pushing her back to him all the time, to this unhealthy and obsessive form of love. Neither are necessarily available, but her ego and her vulnerability crave the fairy-tale.
I am unsure whether Louise O’Neill intended for the reader to build a bond with Sarah, yet her character is deeply unlikeable, almost ‘whiney’ and yet… who among O’Neill’s readership can claim that they have not had their eye drawn elsewhere; that they have not experienced the deathly touch of familiarity creep into their romance; and that their confidence didn’t respond to the words and glances of others. If this makes Sarah appear discontent with her life and insecure and therefore an unlikeable character, are we sure that it doesn’t ring too close to home for our liking?
The obsessiveness of this love between Sarah and Matthew shadows her job, her friends and her life; her visits home to visit her widowed father become less and less frequent. Her friends provide the only voice of reason in the novel as they bluntly point out, “You have been having sex with the man for over a year, how much more time does he need?” Yet it is Matthew’s words, “You can’t break up with me because we were never in a real relationship anyway” that send Sarah into a pit of self-loathing and torturous thoughts.
She spirals through a maelstrom of self-doubt with the common theme of ‘I should have been more…’ This is perhaps where O’Neill shines best, when she can acutely pinpoint the direction that our thoughts inevitably take. She identifies a trend in modern society whereby sexual relationships oftentimes have no emotional foundation or commitment and it is during these relationships that we wonder what we could have done differently, in order to be the exception to the rule, and therefore be the person who makes them fall in love. There is a clarity to her thoughts at the end, sharpened by the insights gained through experience. There are some negative reviews for this novel out there, based on the character of Sarah and I don’t agree with them. I think that she is irritating and I agree that she can grate on the nerves of the reader due to how available she makes herself; but aren’t we even slightly guilty of the same thing and are we really blind to those characteristics in ourselves?
Dymphna Nugent blogs at The Book Nook on Facebook