By Amy Thompson
Diana Reid’s debut novel, Love & Virtue, opens with the hazy telling of an O Week party in a campus bar from our protagonist, first-year undergraduate student, Michaela, where she ends up leaving with a boy. The encounter is drunken and foggy. She can’t quite remember if she consented, or even had the ability to do so.
To imagine I might ‘report’ what happened, I assume she pictured me as a victim to it. And where she had a villain, my victimhood could only be embellished.
Central to the novel is the friendship between Michaela and Eve, another first-year student living in the dorm room next to Michaela at the fictional Fairfax University. Eve is loud, confident and bold compared to a more subdued Michaela. The women also differ in background—Eve is private-school educated from a wealthy family, while Michaela was raised by a single mother and relies on a scholarship. Michaela is starkly aware of the differences in upbringing between herself and Eve, and the other privileged students at the university.
For Eve, the scholarship had always been an accessory. At one time, it expressed her intellect. Now, she threw it away like she’d outgrown it. For me, it was too useful to acquire symbolic status. I needed money and a place to live. Fairfax gave me money and a place to live.
With the Phoebe Waller-Bridge reference in the very first chapter, I knew this was the book for me. The first-person narration and witty dialogue pull you in and the short chapters leave you telling yourself, ‘Just one more,’ knowing you’ll be reading well into the night.
Reid tackles complex issues with deep insight in a manner that is approachable and engaging. Young Australians often view themselves as a progressive bunch, and Love & Virtue puts a microscope on this, telling of a university culture that is still deeply entrenched in sexism, racism, and classism. Reid graduated from the University of Sydney at the beginning of 2020 and told the Sydney Morning Herald that the ‘observations and experiences [she] had over the previous six years poured out’ into her writing of the novel. These observations and experiences, still fresh in the mind of the author, account for a modern and realistic portrayal of university life that feels highly relevant for Australian university students.
When you take so many privileged people and you insulate them from outside influences, it’s not surprise they end up in this bubble that’s super sexist and racist and classist. It makes totally sense that you’re a bit, I don’t know, morally impoverished.
That’s not to say that this novel is only pertinent to university students. Michaela is at an age where she is leaving childhood behind, determining her beliefs and morals, whilst also feeling ambivalent despite her peers acting with certainty. This is an experience many young people go through, regardless of situation. Many of us quieter types with people-pleasing tendencies know what its like to be drawn in by people with grandiose personalities who make you feel seen. Michaela, in this sense, is a very relatable character in how she responds to Eve and the tumultuous outcome of their friendship.
Love & Virtue has a wider modern relevance in its examination of consent, power and privilege. With these themes, Reid poses philosophical questions to the reader without telling you what to think or feel. Reid has stated that ‘Internet culture and online activism creates an environment where things are often expressed in really black and white terms.’ The novel’s complex and contradictory characters open up discussions about these issues. For example, campus parties are notably rife with racism and misogyny and thirty years prior, an eighteen-year-old girl was raped and murdered on the college oval. Eve blindsides Michaela by appropriating her O Week experience for her own gain. Eve establishes herself as a feminist activist and brings national attention to campus rape culture and structural failures present in residential colleges. She is perceived by outsiders as ‘fantastic’ and ‘brave’ for championing cultural change. But through Michaela’s eyes, we know of Eve’s betrayal and have to grasp that social and political progressiveness do not necessarily equate to morality.
Michaela’s relationships – with Eve and with her fellow students – are central to the novel. However, the romantic relationship established between Michaela and her professor is a weaker element of the story. Professor Rosen is not described as particularly appealing. In a scene almost halfway through the novel he states his age as ‘thirty-six.’ This shocked me when reading because from the descriptions up until that point I had been imagining him as far older. Despite his ‘unremarkable’ physical appearance, Michaela describes him as ‘immensely likeable,’ and dripping in charisma. However, this charisma doesn’t translate on the page. The relationship of a teacher taking advantage of a student’s desire for academic validation, is not written in an entirely convincing way. It isn’t clear what Michaela was getting or thought she was getting out of the relationship, nor did it seem like she felt any attraction to him.
Nonetheless, it is refreshing to read a contemporary work grappling with feminism that is open about not having all the answers. There are no clear-cut ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, and that’s what makes it so real. This is a novel that will spark important discussion and self-reflection as we ask the question, ‘what makes a good person?’
Love & Virtue was published by Ultimo Press and has an RRP of $22.99. It is available from most online and local retailers.
Amy Thompson is currently undertaking a Master of Publishing and Communications at the University of Melbourne. In her free time, she enjoys baking and making Spotify playlists for fictional characters.