Asking for It by Louise O’Neill, published in 2015
It’s the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful, happy, confident. One night, there’s a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma.
The next morning, she wakes on the front porch of her house. She can’t remember what happened, she doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t know why she’s in pain. But everyone else does.
Photographs taken at the party show, in explicit detail, what happened to Emma that night. But sometimes people don’t want to believe what is right in front of them, especially when the truth concerns the town’s heroes…
I want to start this review off with a trigger warning. The book includes scenes of sexual assault and suicidal idealization. I will discuss these topics in my review. The book is not graphic with these topics, but be aware that they are brought up frequently.
Emma O’Donovan is not a likeable character. The first eighty or so pages establish her as a Queen Bee who exists for her social image. She has a close group of friends — Maggie, Jamie, and Ali — that she verbally and emotionally abuses. Emma knows she is beautiful, she knows she has boys’ attention, and her friends exist to boost that attention. However, for as much as Emma doles out, her friends are ready to reciprocate.
“Only three months to my birthday!” Ali takes out her iPhone and swipes through her camera roll. She holds up a photo of a brand-new Mini Cooper in baby blue, and Jamie and Maggie “ooh” in appreciation.
“I feel like you see Mini Coopers everywhere these days,” I hear myself saying. “They’re so popular now.”
Ali’s hand drops to her lap, the photo still open on her iPhone. (p. 15)
“Oh, I don’t know.” [Jamie] shrugs. “You’ve been with everyone else. It’s hard to keep track.” She laughs, like it’s only a joke. … I laugh too. (Fucking bitch.) — Jamie, about Emma (p. 35)
It’s very clear from the beginning that Emma has trouble deciphering sexual encounters and the role of her body. She prides herself on the fact that men/boys can’t take their eyes away from her. At one point in the book, a male cafeteria worker winks at her when he hands over her food and she refers to this as flirting. (I’ve gotten a wink from cafeteria workers before and yes, winks can be flirty, but they can also be friendly.) She willingly wears clothes others call “slutty”: low cut tops, hardly-there skits. Emma is also sexually promiscuous, a fact that is known by her classmates through word of mouth. Emma sees male-female relationships are purely sexual which influences the way she interacts with the world. This perspective is what creates the entire basis for “Asking for It.”
Too often in rape culture, we hear that the victim was “asking for it.” That like Emma’s character the victim was sexually active or wore revealing clothing or actively invited sexual attention. In this book, Louise O’Neill creates the epitome of the “asking for it” persona to evoke conversation: was Emma then asking for it when she goes to a party and is sexually assaulted, being the person that she is?
Emma’s sexual assault is not an easy scene to digest. Please know this before going into the book. Sexual assault scenes/rape scenes never are, and while this book is not especially graphic, there is a fair amount of detail that can be upsetting to read. Emma does not remember all the events of the night (though she will recount some) and following “that night” O’Neill will fast-forward the book one year. Now, Emma is no longer attending school, she has pressed charges, and her town actively hates her.
In terms of writing, the second half of the book was much stronger. First of all, Emma’s character was not the most likeable in the first half (or any of the characters, really). Everyone played the game of looking better than they felt. Emma’s mom only cared about physical appearances, Emma’s friends all wanted to one-up each other, all the students at school were climbing the social ladder. It was this endless struggle to be better than you were when really, you felt terrible on the inside. Second of all, the first half of the book introduced waaaayy too many characters. In the first twenty pages, I learned (and promptly forgot) about twenty names? Emma’s mom, dad and brother, her three best friends, the five boys she hangs out with, the three boys on the football team, then all the girls these boys are dating, then the two super famous football boys that are coming to town… Nevermind the neighbours, and Emma’s best friends’ moms’ names (because apparently they go by their first names). After a bit I just glazed over names because nope, I didn’t remember this person but I could follow the plot, so that was enough, right? This was just a minor annoyance, but it almost turned me off the book at the beginning. So if you pick up this book, it will get better!
To talk #30daysofHumanRightsBPR, I linked this book to the Right to Privacy. According to this right, “no one shall be subjected to attacks upon his or her honour or reputation.” Which is beautiful and great to hear, but in this book, that doesn’t exactly stand up. Emma is not only sexually assaulted, but the boys in the room (because yes, there is more than one attacker) take pictures. They take very graphic pictures and then uploaded these images on Facebook. Then the pictures circulated and soon everyone in the town saw graphic images, yet still the consensus was Emma did wrong by letting boys have sex with her in the first place. By wearing slutty clothing in the first place.
The conversation in this book was so involved. There are other facets, too: if someone was there, but didn’t participate in the actual assault, are they to blame? If Emma had said yes to sex earlier in the night (although this was a questionable yes) does this mean she said yes to everything? This is not a simple topic to broach and definitely not a book to pick up for a casual read. But if you want to read a book that discusses rape culture, I certainly recommend this one.
Four crowns because it does take a while to get into. Oh! And sometimes Emma will have a flashback but the writing doesn’t make it very clear when she returns to the present, so it can be a bit unclear if she’s thinking of something then, or now. But still a very well-written novel on a difficult topic.
Here are the Chooseday options for next week! Leave your vote in the comments below. Thanks for taking the time to vote, I always appreciate it.
(1) Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
It’s Spring Break of senior year. Anna, her boyfriend Tate, her best friend Elise, and a few other close friends are off on a debaucherous trip to Aruba that promises to be the time of their lives. But when Elise is found brutally murdered, Anna finds herself trapped in a country not her own, fighting against vile and contemptuous accusations.
As Anna sets out to find her friend’s killer, she discovers hard truths about her friendships, the slippery nature of truth, and the ache of young love.
As she awaits the judge’s decree, it becomes clear that everyone around her thinks she is not just guilty, but dangerous. When the truth comes out, it is more shocking than one could ever imagine…
(2) The Art of Keeping Cool by Janet Taylor Lisle
Fear permeates the Rhode Island coastal town where Robert, his mother, and sister are living out the war with his paternal grandparents: Fear of Nazi submarines offshore. Fear of Abel Hoffman, a German artist living reclusively outside of town. And for Robert, a more personal fear, of his hot-tempered, controlling grandfather.
As Robert watches the townspeople’s hostility toward Hoffman build, he worries about his sensitive cousin Elliot’s friendship with the artist. And he wonders more and more about the family secret everyone seems to be keeping from him—a secret involving Robert’s father, a bomber pilot in Europe.
(3) Feed by M.T. Anderson
For Titus and his friends, it started out like any ordinary trip to the moon – a chance to party during spring break and play with some stupid low-grav at the Ricochet Lounge. But that was before the crazy hacker caused all their feeds to malfunction, sending them to the hospital to lie around with nothing inside their heads for days. And it was before Titus met Violet, a beautiful, brainy teenage girl who has decided to fight the feed and its omnipresent ability to categorize human thoughts and desires.
Comment below what book I should read and review for next week!
📷 = @shaniasquires