Sex. Power. Consent.
Whenever I say I was at university with Eve, people ask me what she was like, sceptical perhaps that she could have always been as whole and self-assured as she now appears. To which I say something like: ‘People are infinitely complex.’ But I say it in such a way so pregnant with misanthropy that it’s obvious I hate her.
Michaela and Eve are two bright, bold women who befriend each other their first year at a residential college at university, where they live in adjacent rooms. They could not be more different; one assured and popular – the other uncertain and eager-to-please. But something happens one night in O-week – a drunken encounter, a foggy memory that will force them to confront the realities of consent and wrestle with the dynamics of power.
Initially bonded by their wit and sharp eye for the colleges’ mix of material wealth and moral poverty, Michaela and Eve soon discover how fragile friendship is, and how capable of betrayal they both are.
Written with a strikingly contemporary voice that is both wickedly clever and incisive, issues of consent, class and institutional privilege, and feminism become provocations for enduring philosophical questions we face today.
by Olivia Fricot
According to its author, Love & Virtue is a novel that apparently wouldn’t have been written without the pandemic-induced lockdown. If we’re about to be inundated with a wave of novels written during this time, let them all be as good as this one. The debut novel of Sydney author Diana Reid and the second to come from Ultimo Press, Love & Virtue is a ruthlessly perceptive campus novel that actually lives up to its premise.
Our heroine is Michaela Burns, a first year university student from Canberra who initially struggles to find her place amongst her much wealthier peers at a residential college within a prestigious Sydney university. Overcompensating with alcohol, Michaela eventually crosses paths with the enigmatic Eve Herbert-Shaw, her neighbour and classmate, and the two girls form a passionate friendship. But when the true nature of a drunken O-Week sexual encounter is revealed to her, however, Michaela feels her world and perspective shift violently beneath her, particularly as Eve starts to take ownership of Michaela’s story in the pursuit of personal and feminist acclaim.
With its fascinating cast of characters and astute ruminations on human nature, Love & Virtue is a novel that won’t leave you easily. Much has and will be made of Diana Reid’s compassionate handling of the sexual assault and consent storyline, and rightfully so. This novel illuminates the complex emotional experience of one assault survivor, much like Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, and frames it within a larger story of gender relations and structural complicity. Michaela’s experience of sexual assault is not invoked as a mere plot point, but as the trigger for a thoughtful exploration of morality and human behaviour. The moment of its revelation is a gut punch, masterfully handled.
Outside of the novel’s rather depressing cultural relevance, however, lies another compelling aspect which I hope readers won’t overlook. To me, the strength of Reid’s debut lies in her handling of the complexities of certain female friendships — the intensity, the passion, the blurring of personal boundaries, and the competitiveness — and how these things calcify when put under the pressure of academia. Michaela and Eve are similarly intelligent, but their confidence wavers almost in direct relation to their wealth, despite both being attractive young white women. As the novel’s narrator, we are witness to Michaela’s desire for love, power, and knowledge, and how this makes her emotionally vulnerable to someone like Eve. In contrast, Reid imbues Eve’s character with reckless audacity, of a kind which makes her an unpredictable and endlessly interesting literary creation. Reading the interactions between the two girls might make you queasy with dread (or recognition …), but you’ll find yourself rewarded with the book’s brilliant epilogue.
As a novel about the endlessly relevant themes of sex, love, and consent, but also just as a novel in its own right, Love & Virtue succeeds and should be lauded. I’m eagerly looking forward to talking about it when everyone else gets the chance to read it come this time next week.
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A new, paperback edition.
Published in 2021 by Ultimo Press.
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