The Rachel Incident by Caroline O'Donoghue: book review
Thank you so much to Knopf for giving me an e-ARC for review purposes. This had no impact on the content of my review.
Overview: Rachel is coming of age in Cork, Ireland, in 2010 as the recession is making the job market impossible, and the world feels collectively bleak. She's crawling through an English degree that feels pointless, especially in light of the recession. She picked it with no career goals in mind and feels relatively aimless in her swan dive into adulthood. Thankfully, she has her best friend James by her side, and as they share a run down house on Shandon Street, their lives bend, change, and shift so that every few months they're nearly unidentifiable. Framed around Rachel's life in 2021 as a fully grown adult, we sink into her adult-coming of age from around 19-22 as her life takes unexpected turns. Overall: 4.5
Characters: 4.5 Rachel is a character I immediately connected with as a fellow 20-year-old girl afloat in the abyss of "what am I going to do with my life?". She has a certain insecurity that feels embedded into her person, both physically about her height and emotionally in her connections with others. Once she meets James at the bookshop, her life finds a shape completely bent around his. While James maintains a strong skeleton of his own life, Rachel's is at the mercy of her best friend's path to her detriment. She has a similar tendency in romantic relationships, but the intensity of those is spared by her utter devotion to James that keeps them playing second fiddle. This creates both the sense of a powerful and important friendship and a warning about folding your life into someone else's completely.
So much of these characters are expressed in extremely subtle nuances, so it feels impossible to really get into them without spoiling what's so delightful and interesting about the book. The subtleties of the relationships and interactions is what the book is made of. Their various romantic entanglements and life choices as they cement their career aspirations paint a fascinating, relatable, and compelling portrait of some very different people, and surprising for literary fiction, each significant character does get some kind of send off by the end of the novel. I wish I could say more about the wonder of the wildly mixed up relationships and the characters that drive this book, but I would hate to ruin the surprises.
Plot: 4 This is a quintessential literary fiction novel. It's all about characters and subtlety and relationships, and I find that delicious. If you're not a fan of that style, you'll likely find the book quite boring. There are some truly dramatic moments, but that's sandwiched between a lot of quiet life that builds up to the most emotional twists. These moments felt earned, which is something I really appreciate, and I do feel like this novel has more plot than some in its category. I also appreciated the interesting framing of introducing us to Rachel in the present day and showing us small glimpses of her grown up life that created foreshadowing for the flashbacks to 2010 that constitute most of this book. It's a perfect literary coming of age creation, and I get the hype.
Writing: 4.5 I don't request books on NetGalley very often anymore (this is the only one I've requested all year), and I hadn't heard anything about this book when I sent in the request. I wasn't sure if I'd even get approved since I'd only ever read YA off NetGalley. I requested this one off the gorgeous cover and the Sally Rooney comparison. I had a much more natural and effortless connection with O'Donoghue's writing than with Rooney, but that might have to do with the 50 literary novels I've read in-between as practice. Still, if you're a fan of Irish literature or of Rooney, The Rachel Incident should be an easy favorite. There's a similarity in the quiet dedication to character portraits as well as an intensity and messiness to the relationships that unfold here that make the novels good companions. The book is expertly executed and feels both intimate and relatable as well as beautifully artistic.
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