Words by: Tiffany Forbes Image: Instagram/@ultimopress
Are you a good person? Or do you just look like one?
CW: Discussion of sexual assault and rape
Last year, I, like many others, went through the ultimate rollercoaster of emotions that was Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Now, I don’t know if it was the depth to which we learn about our intricate protagonist Marianne, or the fact that Connell (and his chain) have a death-defying chokehold on me, but I would do anything to read that literary masterpiece — and watch its TV adaptation — for the first time again.
If you’re in the same boat and have exhausted every last drop of our home girl Sally’s titles, I have the ultimate answer to your woes. Enter: Love & Virtue by Australian author Diana Reid, who has been officially dubbed ‘the new Rooney’. I know what you’re thinking, big call. But after having read her debut novel as this month’s Esperanto book club feature, I can’t say I disagree.
Set in the heart of our very own Sydney, Australia, the storyline offers a unique Australian take on tertiary campus life — which is a refreshing alternative to the American and British-based ‘college’ titles I grew up reading.
In essence, the plot follows high-achieving, scholarship student Michaela through her first year at FairFax, one of Sydney’s most prestigious universities. Being on the cusp of graduating from a bachelor’s degree myself, it’s fair to say, it’s been a while since I’ve been considered fresh meat on the campus block, but the way Reid narrated the novel through our main character Michaela, and her friends, brought back all the O-Week feels.
From perfectly capturing those first-year anxieties — like finding your feet in new waters and navigating new friendships — to feeling old enough to conquer the world, but still young enough to want to crawl back into your mum’s arms and cry sometimes, Love & Virtue carefully took me through all the motions. The subtle hints of political and social commentary that played out in the conversations Michaela had with her dorm room neighbour, Eve also screamed big Rooney energy, which I so much enjoyed reading.
Aside from the (almost uncanny) resonance this novel possessed in comparison to my own life, I was taken aback by the seemingly effortless ease at which Reid dived into deeper discussions around classism, and the role it plays in elite schools. As a scholarship student, our protagonist Michaela was equally immersed in this way of life as she was on the outskirts, so her unique observations surrounding the air of privilege these students are afforded was eye-opening.
In a later twist of events, the novel also touches on forbidden love and grappling with grief as a young person, which added an extra layer of depth to the jam-packed narrative.
What I found particularly pertinent however, was the unique perspective this book offered readers on the topic of consent. This was sparked by drunken shenanigans early on, where Michaela and her friends were seen playing a game of “never have I ever”. It then comes out that she had sex with one of the guys in their group during O-Week. The catch? Michaela was too drunk to remember it ever happened. She is later ridiculed, while he is crowned the man of the hour. Sound familiar?
Growing up, I’ll be the first to admit, I had such a narrow-minded view around sexual assault — in the way that I thought it was only characterised by two things: rape or inappropriate groping. But, after having been exposed to newly emerging resources and conversations around the nuances of consent, it’s been an interesting journey coming to terms with the fact sexual assault can be so much more than just those two things. And I think this novel reaffirms the idea that consent, and even different instances of rape for that matter, are not as black and white as we think. There are also so many more factors and power dynamics often at play in cases like this, which Love & Virtue navigates through seamlessly.
While the ending left a lot of stones unturned (giving rise to a second book, I wonder?), I can say this: it really made me reevaluate the trials and tribulations of being a woman in this world.
On that note, if you want to read this title in all its flesh and glory (and find out all the spice for yourself), I recommend you get your hands on a copy just in time for hot girl summer here. Looking forward to hearing what you all think!