So, when Almost Love’s description started with the line “if it doesn’t hurt, it’s not love,” I just knew that the story was going to rip into my chest, grab my heart, punch it a bit, put it back with a band-aid to hold it in place, haphazardly stitch up my chest cavity, give me a brief grimace of a smile, pat me on the head and then leave me sitting there, thinking about what I just read.
That was definitely what happened to me and, call me a sadist, but I loved every bit of it.
Though her previous books tackled very serious topics, Almost Love is Louise O’Neill’s first book for adults. I always think that sounds silly because, as a teenager, I was reading ‘adult’ books and as an adult, I read a lot of books meant for teenagers. But I must admit Almost Love deals with some super serious shit and really is definitely meant for adults.
It is the story of Sarah and Matthew and how Sarah falls (and falls hard) for Matthew. But Matthew is not a nice person. He is selfish, cruel, and basically an all-round asshole. Sarah, of course, doesn’t see any of this. She sees him as the charming, older man that she first met. He treats her well, even if it is only in secret. He doesn’t want to meet her friends but that doesn’t matter cos they don’t understand Sarah and him anyway. She just wants to make him happy cos he makes her so happy. Sarah loves him and that’s enough, right? You can see where this is going.
I (thankfully) have not been in a relationship like this, but my gawd have I had friends who have been close. So it was with Sarah’s friend, the one she confides in, that I felt the strongest affinity. She starts as the friendly shoulder to cry on but as Sarah gets deeper and deeper into the mess that is her relationship with Matthew, the shoulder becomes stiff and the advice forced. I, too, have been that shoulder, and when a person is upset but won’t make any changes, being that shoulder becomes the hardest job in the world.
I think that is the point that O’Neill is making with Almost Love. Sarah cannot see that she is in too deep, she’s drowning in Matthew and he doesn’t care if she resurfaces or not. In fact, I wondered if he would even notice if she didn’t.
Almost Love is a grueling read but it is also So. Damn. Beautiful. Jeanette Winterson said about O’Niell’s first book, Only Ever Yours, that “O’Neill writes with a scalpel,” and that could not be more appropriate for this book also. Sarah’s pain is so plain on the page that it feels like it isn’t just happening to her but happening to me as well. Emotion is rife in every action that she takes, and in every new mistake. Her feelings became my feelings, and that was terrifying, as I sank deeper and deeper into the book. Scalpel, yes, but maybe “O’Neill will hack at you with a machete and you will let her” is more accurate.
My recommendation is to read this like you would rip off a band-aid – quickly. Then revel in the painful aftermath, and let yourself heal. It’s beautiful and I will be talking about it to people for many years to come.