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Althea and Oliver

Althea and Oliver by Cristina Moracho
Viking, October 2014
Reviewed from final copy

This book really amazed me by being a story that is bigger and harder and rougher and rawer than I thought it would be. It’s been named for two year’s best lists, and garnered three starred reviews, so it’s not just me feeling amazed. Althea and Oliver is a debut book that went far darker than I expected, and did so intelligently and memorably. While it’s not a perfect read, the more I think about this one, the more impressed I am. 

There’s some great characterization, particularly Althea, though the supporting high school friends are well drawn, too. Moracho’s commitment to writing about hard-to-talk-about love is impressive. The difficulty that both Althea and Oliver have in communicating their feelings is so believable and relatable; prickly Althea and passive Oliver have such strong personalities that conflict so powerfully and yet so subterraneanly that the stakes of this story are high from the start. The choices Althea and Oliver both make make sense, and their actions force them to believably grow as characters. Their choices drive the story and the plot unfolds in a way that feels organic, natural. Their twisted, toxic friendship is so sad and so loving and when they are finally able to see that, finally able to feel that they can step away from each other, it is a significant moment. That ending is powerful, and well-earned.

What I’d want to know most about at the table: the rape scene and its book-long aftermath. In conversation with each other, and in talking independently, Althea and Oliver both reject the term rape. Which. I mean. I get why Althea rejects it, and I would even argue that she doesn’t believe what she’s saying although she does say it; it’s so clearly defensive and angry when it flies out of her mouth; it’s obviously been on her mind. I can respect when Oliver “doesn’t argue with her, not on that point. Something about that word doesn’t feel right. It’s too broad, not specific enough to describe what Althea did to him.” Because in the moment, he’s not ready to say “rape.” Because maybe he’s still working through it all and maybe he wants to define his experience for himself and I can respect that ethically and also respect it as an artistic authorial choice.

But later on, Oliver accepts Will’s description of “got laid” — or anyway doesn’t argue with it. And then, although Althea does apologize — sincerely — that’s really all the conversation they have. Maybe it’s just not fair of me to want two raw teenagers to debrief the rape that changed everything. At one point, Althea acknowledges to Matilda how not-OK it was, and that she understands that she’s been forgiven but that also she can’t change the past. But Althea and Oliver never have that conversation together, not explicitly, and not where Oliver gets any say on his perspective. While I don’t want to turn this book into a book about rape — because it’s a book about a lot of things, including a rape — I did want some more acknowledgement, and some more insight into Oliver’s processing the rape.

Part of this, for me, comes down to how clear and how detailed Althea is as a character. Oliver, throughout the story, felt murkier. Reactive. I felt distanced from his character, and when his foil is so vibrant, so emotional and flawed and relatable and combustive, this distance is even more noticeable. Some of this is due to his KLS, which keeps him out of the plot and off the page.

There were a few things that felt just a bit too convenient — it was so easy that Althea fell in with such sweet slackers and ne’er do wells. And although there are some great descriptions of the filth of the group house, the overall romanticization of Althea’s newfound Bohemian phase is a little hard to take. The parents, too, are the missing/dead/emotionally absentee sort; this is most obvious during the Althea-Garth phone confrontation at the end.

All in all, I could see this with a silver sticker; there are a few flaws, but I’d say they’re minor. Althea and Oliver takes some big risks and I think they mostly pay off. This is another title I’d be very interested in hearing about at the table…if I were at that table; obviously here I’d  like to know what you thought! Let’s go to the comments!

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About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.

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