REVIEW: Love and Virtue by Diana Reid

In brief: Michaela and Eve are two young women starting university while living in a residential college. One drunken night will mean something very different to each of them…

The good: Fantastic writing and story.

The not-so-good: Would have loved to know more about Michaela’s life post-university.

Why I chose it: Read many great reviews.

Year: 2021

Pages: 310

Publisher: Ultimo Press (Hardie Grant)

Setting: Mainly Sydney, Australia

Rating: 9 out of 10

Sometimes there are books that you kick yourself for letting linger on your shelf. Love & Virtue is one of those novels. I’ve read many comparisons to Sally Rooney, but to me this book is much stronger having toned down the emotion and dialled up the plot. It’s an amazing debut that would make a great TV series or film.

Love & Virtue comments on class and privilege in Australia as well as sexual consent, but never with a heavy hand steering the reader in one particular direction. It’s subtle and offers differing schools of thought on the matter from both the students and the university faculty. I wish I’d known that consent was handled so sensitively and eloquently earlier. (I think I was blinded by commentary in the media around the time the book was released and wasn’t keen on being bombarded in my reading life as well). The story is also the coming of age for Michaela, a student from a single parent family in Canberra, worlds away from the privilege and wealth of Sydney’s private schools. Michaela is on a full scholarship for the residential college, allowing her to live and eat without spending any money. She is somewhat ignorant of the other legacy of the residential colleges – a place to network and cement loyalty in the upper echelons for years to come. (To be fair, I had no idea either – I only had one friend who lived in a college as an undergraduate). The colleges are like boarding schools, without the strictness and with added alcohol. It’s about socialising and getting drunk, making friends and sharing the morning after. Michaela fits into the lifestyle with relative ease and a lack of jealousy about her friends’ ability to jet overseas at every break. She makes friends with both girls and boys, gets very drunk and goes to class.

But as with every university story, it’s much more complicated than that. Eve, who lives next door to Michaela, is both a friend and a rival. Michaela looks up to Eve’s strength and willingness to go against the flow with ideas and politics. Eve in turn can be dismissive of Michaela’s ideas or treat her like a pet. What starts as a friendship cools but turns to dislike after Eve discovers Michaela’s secret. This secret has more ramifications for someone else than Michaela, but it ruins a relationship (or perhaps just hastens its end). Plus, Eve knows about something that happened during O-week (that’s Orientation Week) that could devastate a lot of people and change their feelings towards Michaela, rightly or wrongly. It’s a form of perverse blackmail that has Michaela on edge to stop it before it makes national headlines. It also asks who has the right to tell a story if it isn’t their own.

There are multiple forms of consent taking place throughout the novel, not just sexual, but about experiences, class and privilege. It’s a complex story, but it really doesn’t feel that way until you’ve finished it. While reading, it’s engrossing, absorbing and sometimes eerily familiar. Diana Reid is a very accomplished debut novelist, with just the right amount of plot and themes centred around realistic characters. There’s none of the overstuffed first novel syndrome here. She just gets what life is like at uni (oh-so-complex at the time, but nothing compared to the real world) and creates a thought-provoking and engaging story. This is a great novel to read and discuss with others.


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