I have been a diehard fan of Louise O’Neill since I read Asking for It, and I pre-ordered Almost Love when I learned of its existence. O’Neill combines an unflinching feminist philosophy with an unfettered talent for storytelling, and her latest novel is no exception. Equal parts amusing, scathing, and surprising, Almost Love presents us with the paradoxes of making and breaking relationships and the ways in which we make and break ourselves in the process.
Honestly, this book was not what I was expecting. The back cover copy makes no mention of Sarah’s age, and given O’Neill’s previous fare, for some reason I went into this thinking it was another YA novel. Sarah is much closer to my age (28), though. Set across two parallel times—a “present” wherein Sarah is turning 28 and flashback sections to the past where she is 25—Almost Love chronicles Sarah’s quixotic relationship with Matthew, a much older man. With this relationship O’Neill explores the liminal spaces of emotional abuse.
I’m surprised by how well the parallel narrative structure worked for me. Sometimes, especially when I am not expecting it, I really take against such decisions. In this case, I think it works really well. It helps that O’Neill writes the past sections in first person and the present in third person. This makes Sarah’s past the work of an unreliable narrator, of course, and also contributes to a more stream-of-consciousness feel. Even though we know certain things going in, like the fact that she and Matthew do eventually stop seeing each other, the minutiae feel all the more immediate and real.
It’s hard for me to comment on the way in which Sarah falls for Matthew and starts wanting to spend more time with him. But I really liked how O’Neill includes text exchanges between them and shows the escalation of the flirting, followed by Sarah’s intense need to be conciliatory juxtaposed with Matthew’s almost bored curtness. To outsiders like ourselves, his disinterest is palpable. How can she not see it? But O’Neill makes it clear that this is almost-love, an infatuation shading into obsession fuelled not even by any intrinsic, interesting qualities of Matthew himself (we learn almost nothing about him as a person) but by Sarah’s own need to feel some kind of connection.
While I can’t quite identify with Sarah’s desires in the relationship sense, being of a similar age to her and also being a teacher, I do feel like we have a little in common. I can identify with some of the stress in her life, the way that you have to put on this extreme mask of professionalism every single day in front of the children and your colleagues and your boss, even though you have all this normal human life stuff happening outside of work. I had it easy—I taught math and English, while Sarah is an art teacher who has lost, it seems, her personal passion for creating art. That in and of itself is not so bad, were it not for all the people in her life trying to be “encouraging” and “supportive” by telling her to pick up her paintbrush and get back into it. Anyone who has a creative passion, be it a hobby or a profession, and who has hit dry spots in that passion, can identify with the frustration that accompanies such well-meaning attentions.
So in some small ways I can identify with parts of Sarah’s struggle. Still, I admit that in a lot of ways, what she is going through here feels quite alien to me. I’m going to try to press this book on a few of my friends to get their reactions to it. I want to see what others have to say, particularly people who have been in unsatisfying relationships (even if they aren’t quite as dramatically one-sided as Sarah and Michael’s).
Then we come down to Sarah’s characterization and the fact that she’s rather unlikeable.
I love that O’Neill does this, because it would have been so easy for her to just create a protagonist who does and says all the right things yet is still suffering and thus, because she is pure and good, she deserves redemption and forgiveness from both reader and her friends. Instead, O’Neill challenges us to still follow Sarah on this arc, despite the fact that she says and does terrible things to her friends and acts like an entitled, selfish asshole at times—because, you know, real people are like that on occasion. Sarah’s friends and family repeatedly reach out to her, demonstrate that they care, make allowances, offer olive branches—and time and again she rebukes them, pushes them away, even burns some bridges. Although Sarah never quite enters physical self-harm territory, her behaviour is still self-destructive.
I think this characterization makes both Sarah and the story much deeper and more entertaining. While I understand how some readers are going to be turned off by this characterization and decide it’s a reason to pan the whole book, I think that’s an unfortunate and dismissive reading. To me, an unsympathetic protagonist is only a problem when the author isn’t in on the joke. Sarah being an unsympathetic character is the point, and it is part and parcel of her experience.
If a protagonist is unlikeable because they are a jerk to everyone and the author doesn’t demonstrate why this is a problem, then yeah, I’m not going to enjoy the book, because I’m not going to see the point in following that protagonist’s journey. Almost Love is not like that, however. It’s messy and gripping because Sarah is so flawed, and even in the end, there is no promise that she is magically going to become a better person. Maybe she’s going to carry on being an asshole the rest of her life. But hopefully she has learned a little bit more about herself and about love.
Moreover, I read Sarah’s characterization as pushback against the idea that women need to be nice or sympathetic in order to be worthy of love or redemption. This parallels the patriarchal bullshit O’Neill excavates with Asking For It, which of course is rife with people who blame the protagonist victim. While it’s fine to say one doesn’t like Sarah because she’s unsympathetic, the fact remains that she still deserves love, redemption, or what have you. She shouldn’t have to be a nice person, shouldn’t have to work to “earn” it. If Almost Love were a story of an “innocent”, sympathetic woman, then it would be very different—and, I would argue, much less potent.
Almost Love is one of those so-fascinating-it’s-difficult-to-put-down books. It recapitulates a lot of common motifs about destructive or unhealthy relationships, but rather than offering trite or easy solutions—like a Prince Charming rebound to the rescue, or some big, climactic life crisis that forces Sarah to “wake up” to everything good around her—the book reminds us that love, and relationships in general, is hard work. I see this everyday, in my own platonic relationships, and in the romantic and sexual relationships my friends pursue, the work they put into flirting (or trying hard not to be flirtatious, in some cases) and whatnot. One of the hardest things is figuring out if you and the other person or people in the relationship want the same things. And if you don’t … how do you find a way towards some kind of equilibrium, instead of spiralling out of control like Sarah does here?
Intensely different from Asking for It, Almost Love nevertheless reaffirms my opinion of O’Neill as a writer who tackles tough topics with no small amounts of compassion or courage. There are so many ways in which she could have cut corners here, could have taken an easier tack, even though it would have made the book feel more conventional. I’m really glad she didn’t. Even when this book makes me uncomfortable, it is still a pleasure to read, because it is so compelling and interesting. It is open to the reader engaging with it on so many levels, personal and literary, and that makes it worth reading and even re-reading in the hopes of discovering something new.