The Rachel Incident, a review by Joanna

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The Rachel Incident

Caroline O’Donoghue

368 pages

Published on June 27th, Knopf


This was a bittersweet coming of age story, about a young woman learning about relationships in GFC era Cork, Ireland. I was sent an invitation to read it by the publisher, because it’s been compared to Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow – which was my favourite book of 2022; the email even includes an endorsement by Gabrielle Zevin, and it’s set around a book shop, so how could I resist? Unfortunately, and rather predictably, this doesn’t quite match up – mostly because the characters are not nearly as appealing, but I still became immersed in Rachel’s story and finished it in a day.

Rachel is a heavily pregnant London journalist who is prompted to reflect on the events of her youth by news about an important figure from her past. As a final year English Literature student, she meets James in the bookshop where they both work part time, and they become best friends. Insecure and awkward, she has a huge crush on her married college professor, and together they conspire for her to seduce him a his book launch – but things don’t go according to plan, and the consequences of this end up changing her life…
Other reviewers have compared this to Normal People – with a dash of Bridget Jones’ Diary, and I can see why. Young Rachel’s behaviour is off-putting but poignantly understandable: “On top of all that, he was the only man I’d met who made me feel petite, and to feel protective over someone who physically towers over you is a hell of a drug.” I’m sure we’ve all done things we look back on with shame and regret, and I liked that we do get to meet her all grown up. This is an Irish story so it’s basically about the complicated hypocritical conflicts about sexuality, sexual behaviour, shame, and of course, abortion. The three significant men in her life at the time, James, Fred, and Carey, all behave abysmally,  but as ever, the woman is to blame and pays the price. There’s also a lot about the difficulties faced by young people during the financial crisis – middle class Rachel finds herself with an apparently useless degree after struggling to pay for university, a situation which will resonate with many people I imagine.
I didn’t find it humorous, but neither was it as depressing as you might think.
Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf publishing for the ARC. I am posting this honest review voluntarily.

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