Almost Love by Louise O’Neill

Almost Love, the latest from Louise O’Neill, examines an all-too-familiar trope – the attraction of the ‘bad boy’.

Twenty-four-year-old Sarah falls for Matthew, a successful property developer in his forties. Matthew has an ex-wife and a teenage son. His ‘relationship’ with Sarah is limited to hurried meetings in a nondescript Dublin hotel room. Despite their sexual relationship, there is no intimacy. Matthew insists on keeping their meetings a secret; responds sporadically to Sarah’s text messages; and shuts down Sarah’s attempts to make plans.

And Sarah does what most women have either done or witnessed in a female friend – she waits by the phone. She goes as soon as she is beckoned. She accepts being treated like trash. She begs and then apologises… It’s the familiarity of this destructive behaviour that makes Almost Love compelling reading.

Did all women take half-truths and implied promises and side glances and smiles and weave them together to create a narrative, the way she had done?

The death of Sarah’s mother when she was a child; her failed dreams of becoming an artist; and the description of a post-Matthew relationship, provide additional elements to the story, however, it is the flawed character of Sarah, who gives the story depth. She is unlikeable and thoughtless. She is self-centered, lacks empathy, and is a terrible friend.

Sarah’s unkindness to others is an interesting distraction from Matthew’s unkindness to her. Although the fact is that Matthew is a turd, the reader could stray into ‘she deserves what she gets’ territory, and this highlights the very point of the book – that there are gendered inequalities in relationships. Women are expected to be ‘nice’ and accommodating. Neediness and dramatics are not desirable.

In Sarah we see someone who believes that her ‘effort’ is an indicator of love. She falsely interprets the rollercoaster of emotions that she feels for Matthew as an expression of the depth of her love. It’s a slippery slope, constantly reaching out in the hope that someone will ‘love you back’, and allowing yourself to believe that the object of your affection will ‘change’ given the right circumstances.

I must mean something to him, I told myself. And he must mean something to me, if I allow him to treat me this way. He just needs time.

O’Neill quotes Maya Angelou – ‘…when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time’. It’s true, however, another Angelou gem came to my mind as relevant – ‘Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.’

Almost Love is a quick and thought-provoking read. Although the dialogue and some of the relationships described in the novel lacked the emotional complexity of O’Neill’s previous work, there are strong and interesting themes, particularly around how one relationship impacts those that follow.

3/5 Great book group fodder.

I received my copy of Almost Love from the publisher, Quercus Books, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Sarah and Matthew drink ‘porn star martinis’. I’d never heard of such  thing, but have since discovered they’re passionfruit martinis served with a shot of champagne…

8 responses

  1. I have a pair of questions: have you read Circe and how did you respond to the eponymous character?

    Behind my questions is a concern I have for my own inability to see beyond female characters who are unlikeable and allow the wider story to take hold of me. Your review raises interesting points about the complexity of relationships and the unrealistic expectations people have about relationships that make me think I’d like this book, but the fact that you say that the main female character is unlikeable makes me wonder if the annoyance experience says I’ll feel towards her will stop me enjoying the book.

    Not that I really need to add any more books to my reading list!

    • I haven’t read Circe (although it’s on my TBR list).

      The main character in this book treats her friends and family poorly. I didn’t give any of the details of what she actually does but it’s a combination of particular incidents as well as general grumpiness, and taking it out on those closest. The story also illustrates the fact that when someone is obsessed with a lover (and the drama that goes with that), their friends get very tired of hearing about it – same story, on repeat!

      If you really don’t like flawed central characters, you probably should give this a miss! (They don’t bother me at all, and in some cases I like the challenge of those types of characters because I wonder how the author is wanting me to respond – this book is a good example because the reader’s immediate response could be a little uncomfortable).

      • Thank you! I think you’re right – I should give this one a wide berth!

        I’ll be interested to read your review of Circe when you get to it. My response to it was very different to that of my friends who’ve read it. They all loved it.

      • Interesting. I just finished a book that most of my friends loved and I didn’t (Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides). Funny how sometimes your experience of a book is very different from those whose opinion you generally share (in the case of Middlesex, I’ve decided it’s a style thing – I feel like Eugenides overdoes it).

      • Isn’t it? I loved Middlesex because of its hyperbole. I thought he captured the teenageness of the central character really well. I liked The Marriage Contract less because the hyperbole seemed misplaced and haven’t read anything else by him since.

        With Circe I feel like I read a different book to everyone else.

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