Claire Qu reviews Love & Virtue by Diana Reid
Love & Virtue
By Diana Reid
Reviewed by CLAIRE QU
The prim and vaguely Austenian title of Diana Reid’s debut novel offers a tongue-in-cheek self-description consistent with the book’s plentiful irony. Many labels could be applied to it: campus novel, bildungsroman, #MeToo novel, story of contemporary female friendship. Perhaps that is why it is so constantly self-aware, so unremitting in its parody of all the stock characters – the insecure freshmen, urbane professors, greasy suitors, and smugly ‘liberated’ women – that people these genres. It isn’t satire alone which saves Reid’s book from vanishing into the slew of Millennial Novels however; crucially, it also has heart. Though no sweeping epic or philosophical heavyweight, Love & Virtue is winning, clever, and self-deprecating.
The novel captures the first year of Michaela’s university life among elite Sydney high school graduates. At its frothy beginning, I’ll admit I shrank from what seemed a somewhat stale montage: house-parties, drunkenness, and superficial friendships. Modern social alienation, that increasingly common theme, crops up abundantly at the start of Love & Virtue, in wry narratorial observations. ‘Alcohol was useful for making friends,’ Michaela notes, attractive, ‘liquid-limbed’ friends who are ‘intelligent enough to realise that nothing is sexier to a young and fragile man than not understanding what he is saying’ (14, 17). The sheer, drug-addled stupidity of O-week hijinks is vividly evoked, along with a brutal projection of where it all too often leads: these bright young things ‘will grow up to work in banks, and then cheat on their wives with their secretaries, and have a panic attack when they realise they don’t have an inner life’ (48). Even throughout the scenes of fun, Reid peppers reminders of class privilege and ubiquitous sexism, a sweet-and-sour formula that could have rendered the novel dryly moralistic were it not for the heady and complex female relationship blooming at its centre.
Eve Shaw is the archetypal ‘frenemy’, and the whole novel is framed by her ambivalent friendship with Michaela. This fact alone merits praise in a world where significant literary relationships between women, while on the increase, are still a rarity. More importantly, the individual characters of Eve and Michaela, as well as their tense chemistry, are realised with rare charisma and authenticity. ‘[I]n spite of everything,’ confesses the latter of the former, ‘I’m still a bit in love with her’ (2) – and so am I. Despite being in many ways a caricature of the hypocritically ‘woke’ undergraduate, with her performances of selfless erudition and willingness to mine painful situations for ‘broader social benefit’ (292), Eve is eminently seductive. Her warmth and physicality permeate the novel, and her flashes of humour, generosity, and infuriating egotism are the rhythm the plot responds to. Michaela’s regard for Eve is, for me, one of the most unexpectedly likeable things about Love & Virtue. For, though we recognise a hollowness to Eve in the importance she attaches to being ‘both a person and an idea of a person’ (10), her own belief in ideals of aesthetics and ethics (also the name of a subject she takes) feels genuine. And if Michaela, cynical with our times, doesn’t appreciate Wildean self-invention, at least readers may.
It is Eve, too, who stands in the shadow of the novel’s twin dramatic centres, plotlines which at first appear to gravitate around two men. In this triangle of desire, triumph, and irritation lies Reid’s greatest achievement. Turning the marriage plot on its head, she presents instead a fiercely competitive homosociality between Eve and Michaela in light of which heterosexual romantic entanglements seem contingent. Through Michaela’s messy sexual encounter with a peer and her developing relationship with an older man, Reid explores issues of consent and power imbalances with unusual attention to the finer shades of guilt, pride, self-consciousness, and shame. Eve’s part in these episodes further refines the book’s nuanced discussion of consent, and it is her secondhand involvement in Michaela’s sex life which makes Love & Virtue’s treatment of the topic so fresh and believable. In the one case, Michaela’s anticipation of her friend’s shock and envy at being ‘if not beaten, then at least passed over’ (169) is deliciously vitriolic; in the other, Eve’s betrayal takes the words out of Michaela’s mouth, leaving her to mourn ‘[her] own version of events’ (294).
Personal crises, political and philosophical musings, and the affected gloss of first-year banter – Reid handles all these in unpretentious prose which warms from flippancy to eloquence as Michaela forges deeper emotional connections. The dialogue, in particular, is a stand-out, treading the line between stiffness and excessive glibness admirably. Reid’s experience with writing for theatre shows in the remarkable inflections of intimacy and attitude that she is able to give with conversation alone. It is also to this deftness with dialogue that we owe the sympathetic, three-dimensional image of Michaela; readers experience her wit, worldliness, generosity, insecurity, and occasional pettiness through her conversations with others, rather than learning of them by way of clumsy self-description.
Reid has cited Donna Tartt’s classic campus novel, The Secret History, as a major inspiration for Love & Virtue, an influence perceptible in the aura of dark drama surrounding the mutually vengeful relationship between Michaela and Eve. Reid’s novel doesn’t quite achieve the symmetry between academic discussions and the surrounding plot so successful in The Secret History. An exchange between Michaela and her Philosophy professor hints at a theoretical understructure to the book’s critique of campus culture:
‘So Michaela, from where are we deriving moral knowledge in week ten, semester one?’ ‘I want to say “social constructs”, but that depresses me.’ (117)
The discussion stops there, curtailing the book’s generic potential for a blend of the abstract and the concrete. Excepting this minor shortcoming, however, Love & Virtue is to be lauded for its difference from its model. Reid has created her own kind of campus novel, candid and irreverent – a far cry from earnest dark academia stylings. At once typically Australian, with its Bondi panoramas and unsophisticated college party scenes, and crushingly universal in its dissection of institutionalised sexism, class privilege, and new adult identity formation, Love & Virtue is a poised debut offering. Reid’s novel is a timely reflection on the manifold ways in which the #MeToo movement has failed and a lively intervention in the ranks of increasingly apathetic Millennial fiction – and most importantly, it’s a really fun read.
Reid, Diana. Love & Virtue. Ultimo Press, 2021.
Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. Penguin, 1993.
CLAIRE QU recently graduated from an honour’s degree in English at the University of Melbourne and is looking forward to continuing her studies overseas. Her interests include the Gothic, ecocriticism, and women’s writing, topics she hopes to explore in her postgraduate thesis.