Review of Loveless by Alice Oseman
by Alice Oseman
Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
As someone who is herself aromantic and asexual, I was very much anticipating Loveless, to the point where I pre-ordered it. My experience with Alice Oseman has been varied: I adored Radio Silence but didn’t much care for Solitaire. Here I find myself very ambivalent: on one hand, I really enjoyed the aro/ace representation here. On the other hand, I’m not sure that, overall, Loveless is a very good book.
A note about the spoilers: the first half of this review, where I discuss the aro/ace representation, is spoiler-free. The second half is where I talk plot details.
Georgia Warr is going off to uni, fortunate to be accompanied by her two best friends Pip and Jason. While there she befriends her roommate, Rooney, who is the extroverted, sexually-active foil to Georgia’s introverted, sexually-inexperienced self. Indeed, as the title and most of the first part of this book emphasize, Georgia is obsessed with the fact that she has never had sex, never had a boyfriend (or girlfriend), never even been kissed. She is low-key worried something is “wrong” with herself. So much of Loveless entails Georgia’s fumbling attempts to force herself to feel sexual attraction, to finally have that kiss, and to figure herself out. But it turns out—and this is not a spoiler, because it is literally the whole premise of the book—Georgia is not broken; she’s aromantic and asexual. She just didn’t know those terms! Unfortunately, along her journey of self-discovery, she makes some mistakes that hurt herself and her friends.
Overall, I really liked the portrayal of Georgia’s experiences and her journey of discovering that she is aro/ace. Now, I don’t entirely identify/sympathize with that journey myself. You can hear all about my personal aro/ace journey by listening to this episode from my podcast with my bestie, We Just Like to Talk. (Please note that we recorded it before I came out as trans, so we use my dead name, of course—you can just ignore that.) To summarize, though: I had it “easy” in the sense that my dearth of romantic or sexual relationships never bothered me the way it clearly bothers Georgia. I took a few half-hearted stabs at asking out girls in high school because I figured that’s how it works; when that didn’t work out, I shrugged and just … didn’t do it any more. I went on with my life of books and tea, finished university, found the labels of aro and ace somewhere along the way and said, “Oh, huh, it me, ok,” and that was that. I didn’t wrestle with my identity like Georgia did, didn’t blame myself or wish I felt differently, didn’t encounter much in the way of acemisic behaviour. Moreover, I didn’t move away for university, and I never sought the “typical uni experience” that Georgia seeks here—I was largely asocial for the first three years of university and only found my people towards the end of my time there.
That being said, I recognize there are a lot of aro/aces out there whose experience must be closer to Georgia’s, so if you see yourself in her, awesome. Also, there were definitely moments where I nodded my head and said, “Yes, definitely, you’ve nailed it for me.” Georgia and Rooney have a frank conversation about masturbation, and Georgia talks about how she doesn’t imagine herself having sex when she’s fantasizing—this is very much my experience too. I’m happy that Oseman shows an asexual character who is sex-repulsed personally (although, as other reviewers have noted, Oseman doesn’t actually use that term and I agree this is a mistake) yet still masturbates. Similarly, there’s a moment in that same scene when Georgia says, “You have got to be joking” and reacts to Rooney’s statements with incredulity. Again, it me: I genuinely have these moments where I wonder, just for a second, if anyone really likes sex or feels sexual attraction, or if the rest of y’all are just pretending. Because it truly boggles my mind, this thing that you are experiencing that I just don’t experience.
I wish Oseman had handled the explanations of terminology with more deftness and grace. At one point, Georgia is researching this stuff online, and she eventually shuts down because “it’s a lot, like a lot a lot.” I can understand this reaction, but it feels unsatisfying to see it in a novel that is purportedly trying to raise awareness of asexual experiences. Like, it’s kind of your job to parse this into a format that is digestible to the reader. I acknowledge that, as Georgia learns about these terms and even tries to educate others, like her cousin, there are attempts to acknowledge the diversity of the aromantic- and asexual-spectra, including the fact that some asexual people do like or seek out sex.
Similarly, I really, really like that Loveless ultimately champions the validity and worthiness of platonic love and friendship. More of that in books, please! However, as she does this, Oseman puts her thumb heavily on the scale that reads “aromantic and asexual people never get married or have romantic/sexual relationships,” so that’s disappointing. Throughout the novel, Georgia wrestles with the fact that she wishes she felt attraction to people, because she wishes for the kind of lives she has seen in romantic media. She is unsatisfied, even after discovering the labels that match her experiences, because she doesn’t want to be aro/ace. She thinks this limits her options, and that is a very uncomfortable conclusion to draw about aro/ace identities. It would have been nice even just to introduce an ace person who is happily married—how simple and easy that would have been, to show us that there are situations where, if that’s the life you want, you can have it?
Anyway, although I have some critiques as discussed above, by and large, I liked the aromantic and asexual representation in Loveless. It isn’t going to be every aro/ace’s experience, and if you don’t see yourself reflected in Georgia, you are still valid. But I think Oseman thoroughly captured many of the struggles that young aro/ace adults experience when they haven’t been as lucky to learn about those identities already or, like me, didn’t just stumble through adolescence in a charmed fashion.
Ok, so if I liked that part of Loveless, why the long face at the beginning of this review? I’ve given it some thought, and my ultimate conclusion for now is that Oseman is just trying to do too much here. I have some other, more specific critiques, but that’s the main one: as a narrative, Loveless is a mess.
This is where I start spoiling things if you need to bail now!
Aside from Georgia’s sexual awakening, there’s a ton of subplots happening here, and they don’t always get the time they deserve. Take the Shakespeare Society scheme that Rooney cooks up: they have to put on a Shakespeare play with at least 5 people in order to secure funding for a full Shakespeare Society next year. The President of the Drama Society, Sadie, is a milquetoast antagonist here. She disappears after her initial appearance and then reappears at the climax of this subplot, and … I just don’t feel the stakes here. Even when the Shakespeare Society’s existence and success are at stake because of what Georgia did, I didn’t feel the tension. Because whereas this could be the entire plot of another book, Oseman squeezes it in as a subplot here.
Then we have the number of character arcs, and the depth (or lack thereof) of some of them. To talk about these I want to talk about Lloyd, because Lloyd made me uncomfortable. Lloyd is a cis gay man who was the former President of the Pride Society, ousted in favour of Sunil (Georgia’s magical Indian nonbinary fairy godmother) because Sunil listened better to the members and was more inclusive. We meet Lloyd only a few times, and each time we are told the same thing: he’s an exclusionary prat who only wants to let LGBT people into the Pride Society and doesn’t want to include “Tumblr sexualities” like asexuality. I wish I could call this a brilliant move on Oseman’s part: there are real gay men like Lloyd who gatekeep queer communities, and it is good to call them out. But Lloyd is effectively the only gay man in the entire book, and so his characterization made me feel uncomfortable because he felt like a caricature. And this is the case for most of the other queer identities in Loveless.
Sunil is the nonbinary gay asexual character; Jess is the aromantic bisexual character; Pip is the lesbian; Rooney is the pansexual one … when you try to give every character their own, unique queer labels, you run the risk of exactly this situation: suddenly, in a well-intentioned attempt at diversity, you’ve partitioned your characters in a way that has each one carry the burden of representing an entire identity.
I’m not saying Oseman is wrong for having so many different queer identities in this book. However, I wish more care had been taken in considering how each character’s development and actions reflected on their role as sole representative of that identity. It’s cool that Sunil is nonbinary yet accepts he pronouns in addition to they pronouns—but it is a little odd for everyone in the book to refer to this sole nonbinary character as “he.” Likewise, my awkwardness about Lloyd could easily have been obviated simply by including a few other stock, background gay characters at Pride Society meetings, just to offset Lloyd’s terribleness. Why not have Pip meet a few more lesbian friends, or have Rooney go to a Pride Society meeting and meet some pansexuals and bisexuals who can help her navigate the complexities of such labels? I know Loveless is Georgia’s story and not these characters’ stories, but Oseman spends a significant amount of time developing each of these side characters. They deserve a far more nuanced portrayal of their queerness than we get here.
And then there’s the ending.
I want to be clear that I’m not upset about the happy ending. I love happy endings. I’m glad that Georgia makes up with Pip and Jason, etc. What really turned me off, however, was the whole grand gesture thing with Georgia “college proposing” to Pip. Grand gestures have always made me uncomfortable. I much prefer when people show me they care through steady, reliable acts of service rather than one-off grand gestures. I am especially suspicious of grand gestures as a pathway to repairing a strained relationship. Georgia seriously messed up and should apologize, give Pip space, then apologize again and find concrete ways to make amends. I understand that Oseman is attempting to replicate the climactic structure of a rom-com in the service of friendship, thereby “reclaiming” such a time-honoured trope. Yet why, in our challenging of romance-as-king of relationships, should we seek to replicate the toxic aspects of romance in our platonic relationships? Holly Bourne’s It Only Happens in the Movies is a wonderful explanation of this, and I happen to agree with her. Did Georgia ever once stop to think about the pressure she was putting on Pip to accept her funky proposal and make up, regardless of her true feelings?
I think we do our characters and our readers a disservice when our happy endings come as the result of unhealthy tropes. Oseman is doing great work in the sense of showing that friendships are every bit as vital and valuable as romantic or sexual relationships. She had the opportunity here to show the hard work it takes to move forward after serious mistakes in a friendship. Instead, her resolution reinforces the same toxic tropes that infest romantic comedies. This might provide the high of a happy ending, but I ultimately found that disappointing.
I want to conclude by sharing some links to reviews with differing perspectives. Lex explains how they found Georgia’s experiences incredibly validating. Their thoughts would be particularly valuable if you’re allo (not aromantic or asexual) and want to better understand why Loveless can be so important for aro/ace readers. On the other hand, Maëlys examines why the aro/ace rep could be more nuanced (not sure I agree with all points, but I agree about terminology) and how some of the other portrayals of sexualities and characters are not great (lots in here I agree with).
Is Loveless a harmful travesty? Absolutely not. Is it a perfect representation of anything, be it aro/aceness or other queer identities? Also no—but I don’t think any novel could claim that label. If Loveless steps wrong, it’s a well-meaning step caused by overly-ambitious plotting and characterization. This is a hot mess and certainly very problematic in parts, but it also has a great deal going for it. Your challenge, if you choose to read it, is to separate those two things and decide if, on balance, the latter outweighs the former. In my case, as ever my indecisive brain comes down on the “definitely, maybe” middle ground!