Althea & Oliver - Cristina Moracho

I won't lie, this is a difficult book for me to review. I'm conflicted on many fronts in relation to the content and themes. One thing I can say is that the writing style is pretty solid. Moracho knows how to write prose in a way that can keep readers attentive, which is always a good thing when it comes to books for young adults. I also don't have trouble with much of the premise, except for one, pivotal moment that makes me question the entirety of the novel's themes. Before I bring that up (it's a bit of a SPOILER), I'll provide the synopsis first:
Althea Carter and Oliver McKinley have been best friends since they were six; she’s the fist-fighting instigator to his peacemaker, the artist whose vision balances his scientific bent. Now, as their junior year of high school comes to a close, Althea has begun to want something more than just best-friendship. Oliver, for his part, simply wants life to go back to normal, but when he wakes up one morning with no memory of the past three weeks, he can’t deny any longer that something is seriously wrong with him. And then Althea makes the worst bad decision ever, and her relationship with Oliver is shattered. He leaves town for a clinical study in New York, resolving to repair whatever is broken in his brain, while she gets into her battered Camry and drives up the coast after him, determined to make up for what she’s done.
If you don't want the plot ruined for you, or if discussions of rape and sexual abuse are triggers for you, this is the time to stop reading!

Oliver is having a very difficult time of it. He is suffering from a condition in which he ends up falling asleep for extended periods of time, and when he does wake up during these periods, he isn't quite himself. Not only that, but he doesn't remember what's happened during these periods. During one of these times, Althea, who likes Oliver and wants to get closer to him, ends up in a position where she has him turned on and she's turned on and then they have sex, though Oliver is in the midst of one of his episodes! This, my friends, is an instance of rape. Oliver doesn't remember it. His virginity is taken from him. He has been sexually assaulted!! And somehow this is not a HUGE thing later in the book aside from a few moments of inner conflict that each character explores, but that's not enough, in my mind. Okay, maybe Althea feels she isn't a rapist because Oliver was "conscious" during the incident, but damn it, SHE TOOK ADVANTAGE! For crying out loud, if Oliver had taken advantage of Althea during such an episode, I can only imagine the outcry!
"I'm not upset because we didn't have sex, I'm upset because we did. And you don't remember, and it's like it never happened, but it did happen, and you keep complaining because things are different except nothing's different." [...]
"I feel nauseous. I told you, I said I wasn't ready--"
"You wanted to," Althea says stridently.
[...] "You stupid bitch, it wasn't me! You knew it wasn't me, you knew I wouldn't remember, how could you let it happen? I didn't want to, I told you--"
"Oh no? You didn't want to? What did you think happened then? Do you think I forced you? Do you think I held you down and made you do it?" [...]
"You knew it was a big deal to me," he says. "You knew I never would have wanted it to happen like that. How could you not tell me? You've been lying for months." (128-9)
I have definite trouble with this aspect of the plot. I understand that much of the novel deals with Althea trying to work through what she has done, and Oliver has his moments of trying to come to terms with the situation. BUT, besides the one exclamation above, the situation is treated not like a rape (except briefly in some dialogue), but more like a drunk accident, or at least something less horrific. Just because a body is responding to a sexual situation, that does not mean consent is being given, especially since she knows he's suffering from some type of syndrome (even if it is unknown what that syndrome is, at the time.) But even later, when the syndrome is described, the instances of hypersexuality isn't mentioned or expanded on except through discussions by secondary characters who basically describe it as boys being boys, and boys are just really horny.

Once Oliver is admitted to a New York hospital for study, he tells another boy what happened with Althea. Of course, the first thought is that Oliver may have raped her, but when it's mentioned that it was she who had sex with him without consent, it's almost as if that's an excuse to make it less problematic:
"You didn't--" Kentucky can't even finish the thought. "Did you?"
Oliver shakes his head. "No, no, it was nothing like that. She wanted to, she'd be wanting to forever. But I told her I didn't want to, that I wasn't ready, and she did it anyway. And when I woke up, she didn't tell me. Not for months. So isn't that kind of like the same thing?"
"So you're saying she--is that what you're saying?"
Oliver winces. I don't even know what I'm saying." He remembers Althea screaming at him in the driveway: Christ, I'm not a fucking rapist. He didn't argue with her, not on that point. Something about the word doesn't feel right. It's too broad, not specific enough to describe what Althea did to him. Kentucky can't even say it out loud. "No, that's not what I'm saying. Not exactly.
Kentucky looks baffled. "I don't get it."
"What don't you get?"
"Is she ugly or something?"
"Fuck you, she's beautiful."
"Listen, I pulled out my dick in front of my mother. AK-47's little sister is going to need years of psychotherapy. New Jersey got dumped for some infraction he'll never even know about. That shit is irreparable. You just told me you got laid."
"But it's like I wasn't even there."
Irate, Kentucky leaps to his feet and points to the door. "New Jersey tried to fuck a window treatment! You fucked your beautiful best friend! What the hell are you doing here, man? Go find this girl and screw her brains out! And this time you'll remember!" (197-8)
Seriously?! How is that not severely problematic? The secondary character is basically saying it's different that Oliver had sex without knowing it, and it's actually something he should be fine with because it was with a hot girl. I realize Oliver is still struggling with everything, but there's still a dismissal of the fact that this is a case of rape. This is the type of narrative that in fact makes it difficult for boys in real life to come forward about being sexually abused.

Also, the synopsis (part that I didn't post above), notes that the book takes place in the 90s, but until I read that in the jacket cover synopsis, I didn't even know that. The book reads like contemporary YA, not historical (I know, I know... But really, the 90s are technically history!) I didn't really feel the setting was entirely convincing in the sense of the timeframe, except for a passing reference to "the class of 1997" that I picked up on second reading.

I will admit that I thought Moracho did a good job of developing Althea and Oliver as characters (aside from the strange and sexually abusive nature of their relationship), and I found myself getting into their stories outside of the "incident." I feel that the novel could have worked very well without the horrific sexual abuse scene, and the characterization would have been strong with some other incident that wasn't so questionable. I'm not saying rape can't be dealt with in YA, but in this particular novel it felt more like an aside than a situation properly dealt with (or at least dealt with as seriously as if it were one in which Oliver had taken advantage of Althea during a similar episode.)

This could have been a great opportunity to discuss rape of a male character in the vein of Speak, but alas, the opportunity was lost. Consent is a huge issue these days, and I felt that it could have been discussed within the book in much clearer and more direct ways. As the brilliant Angie Manifredi noted during a discussion about this book, "What will a teen reading [this book] think? HIS BODY DID WANT IT. What [the reader] needs to 'learn' is that's not what makes rape, that's not what consent means, and you can be raped even if your body is 'cooperating.'" This is something that needed come out much more clearly within the book, but unfortunately did not.

Due to these rather large issues with the novel, I have to give the novel, at most, a

(Possibly) Recommended with Major Reservations

For more information about this topic in YA, check out the work of the Sexual Violence in YA project (#SVYALit), started by Karen Jensen (@TLT16).

(Note: The above citations are from an ARC of the book and may be slightly different in terms of pagination, in the final copy.)

Comments

  1. Thank you for your great input. I also felt the same way. Can I quote some of the points you made?

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    1. Yes, please feel free to quote if you feel something will be useful for you. Thank you for reading!

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  2. These are pretty much the exact problems I had with the book. The author is a solid writer... but then the way Oliver's rape is handled is just terrible. It made me really angry. Whether your rapist is "hot" or not does not change the fact that it's rape. I was really hoping that the book was going to make a point later on about the incident and really say something about it happening to males... and instead it pretty much ignored it. GAH!

    Glad other people share my feelings on the matter!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comments! I think this book has, if nothing else, laid out the groundwork for some important discussions about how (and how NOT) to handle sexual violence in certain scenarios. Thanks for reading!

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