Novel about friendship, sex and betrayal living in a university residential college
Content warning: sexual violence, relationship power imbalance, possible suicide
I have been doing significantly more running recently, so I have been getting through audiobooks a little more quickly than usual. I have seen this book being recommended and when I saw it was available as an audiobook, I got a copy without even finding out what it was about.
“Love & Virtue” by Diana Reid and narrated by Emma Leonard is a novel set in a university residential college in Sydney. Scholarship student Michaela arrives in Sydney for her first year of university to live at the women-only Fairfax College. From Canberra, Michaela is a little set apart from her much wealthier friends from Sydney private schools. However, she throws herself into O-Week and campus drinking culture and soon makes friends with confident and opinionated Eve who lives in the room next door. They party together and have deep conversations about things like philosophy, misogyny and privilege. However, when their friendship is shattered by betrayals on both sides, Michaela finds herself having to reckon with the events of the past year and the harsh reality of campus life.
This is a fresh and authentic exposé of what it is like in the microcosm of a residential college in prestigious Australian university. Nearly 15 years ago I moved into a residential college myself and I was surprised at how much of the ritual and culture (except, of course, the ubiquitousness of social media now) still rings true. Drawing on her own experiences as a recent graduate, Reid’s story realistically explores the brittle friendships that form in these environments and the competitiveness and elitism among students. Toxic cultures on university campuses has been increasingly the subject of media storms with my alma mater (an elitist term right there) no exception. In her book, Reid explores the events that lead up to Fairfax’s own media storm and how the stripping of Michaela’s agency is almost worse than the trauma she can barely remember. The reader is asked to consider the morality of writing and publishing a story that is not your own, and the inevitable loss of control associated with either remaining anonymous or coming forward in a #MeToo moment.
At the same time, Reid explores the taboo of a student/professor relationship; slowly wearing away the gloss and power of an older man until what is left is just a man, banal in his mediocrity. I liked that Michaela was not a perfect character. She makes some ethically questionable decisions herself in both her studies and her relationship, and Reid captures the complexity of an 18 year old oscillating between extreme youth and mature intelligence very well. Leonard’s narration initially had a bit of a newsreader vibe to it but after only a chapter or two she found her stride and I found her very compelling with a bit of wry humour to her voice.
While I related a lot to Michaela’s shock of an essay mark in the 60s after coming from high school, I didn’t find the parts of the book about her studies, her quest for constructive feedback and her conversations about philosophy with other characters as interesting. I completely understand that the author was drawing on her own studies, but whereas the conversations with Eve about privilege were dissected internally by Michaela as either extremely insightful or downright hypocritical, the musings on philosophy did not really serve to move the plot or character development in the same way and felt more contrived. I found myself tuning out during Michaela’s conversations with the professor, and while her early conversations admitting her ignorance were believable, her intellectual sparring only a matter of weeks or months later seemed less so.
I think the pacing was not quite there either. Michaela puts an enormous amount of significance on a handful of individual events and courses, and seems to have an equally enormous amount of spare time where not a great deal was happening. I felt like either the sense that university is a blur of classes, working, studying, partying and meeting people could have been better captured, or a lot of the long conversations that weren’t contributing much to the overall plot could have been cut back.
I am enjoying reading books about ambition at all costs, and I thought that this book captured modern campus culture, what it means to be a victim and the spectrum of privilege well.