Stinging study of modern romance



By Louise O'Neill

Riverrun/Paperback/ 294 pages/$29.95/ Books Kinokuniya

3 stars

At first glance, Almost Love reads like yet another spin on the trope of "he's just not that into you".

Impressionable young woman meets emotionally unavailable man, a fallout - of the "we can't break up because we were never in a real relationship in the first place" variety - ensues.

However, Irish author O'Neill, hailed for her young adult fiction - from damsels in dystopia in Only Ever Yours (2014) to real-life rape culture in Asking For It (2015) - flays the idea of modern romance in this stinging study of relationships and gender roles.

Sarah Fitzpatrick, a young Irish woman teaching at a private school after having failed to make it as an artist, is drawn into an affair with Matthew, the wealthy father of her student.

He is about 20 years older than her and caught up in a messy divorce. But she nevertheless falls obsessively in love with him, refusing to recognise that she is little more than a booty call.

Even after purportedly moving on - finding a new, loving boyfriend rich enough to support her pursuit of art - she seems to want to compulsively destroy it all.

Almost Love is bound to be divisive, in the same way Kristen Roupenian's viral short story Cat Person was, with its frank depiction of dating gone wrong.

It has a tough balancing act to pull off. Sarah is incredibly unlikable, the kind of person you put "hide all from" on your Facebook newsfeed settings.

She is mean to those who love her, routinely writes her hometown off as a dead end and, in an attempt to secure Matthew's favour, commits an atrocious breach of trust that nearly had this reviewer flinging the book across the room in disgust.

Yet, O'Neill has made Sarah just relatable enough for the tale to work. As much as you want to give her a good shaking, it is also distressing to see how her dependence on Matthew diminishes her.

Anyone who has ever been in some kind of toxic relationship will identify with her hurt.

Besides a technical flourish that shuttles between first-and third-person (to differentiate Sarah's perspective during and after the affair), O'Neill's writing is unvarnished, yet at times, sharply funny.

When Matthew appears in the newspaper at yet another ball, Sarah's father says: "He'd go to the opening of an envelope."

For readers who have, at some point, been like Sarah, the story brings much-needed awareness about how ruinous such tunnel vision can be to those around one.

For those who have been afflicted with knowing and loving a Sarah, it may shed some light on how an independent young woman falls into such a trap.

Unlikable heroes get away with so much on the page, after all - why not women too?

If you liked this, read: Quartet by Jean Rhys (Penguin Classics, 1928, reissued 2000, Books Kinokuniya, $32.05). Marya, a young woman adrift in 1920s Paris after her husband's arrest, begins an affair with the charismatic, manipulative Heidler after moving in with him and his wife Lois. It is based on Rhys' real-life affair with the writer Ford Madox Ford.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2018, with the headline 'Stinging study of modern romance'. Print Edition | Subscribe