Review for “Asking for It” by Louise O’Neill (2016)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This book hits you like a sledgehammer. It’s sad, it’s sadistic, it’s cruel. It makes you angry. You want it to be false, pure fiction made up by an ambitious author. But you know from the headlines dealing with this topic that it’s all true, way too realistic.
Emma O’Donovan is an 18 year old high school student in a small Irish town. She’s gorgeous, smart, a promising student, surrounded by beautiful friends and a loving family. In the standard YA novel Emma would be the stock ‘mean girl’ character, the popular bitch, the Queen Bee we love to hate. Because the story is told through her point of view, you are privy to all of her thoughts, many of which are downright obnoxious. In the first pages of the book you learn that she is actually quite insecure–she’s shallow, narcissistic, and jealous of anyone who makes an effort to be part of the same attention that she desperately seeks. When it comes to boys, Emma must be noticed. When they don’t, she wonders why.
One night, Emma and her friends go to a party. She flirts with other boys, including the boyfriend of one of her friends. She drinks heavily, she has consensual sex with one of the guys there. She willingly takes a pill that a partygoer gives her, which causes her to lose consciousness. She awakens on her front porch with no underwear and her dress turned inside out, sunburned and bleeding, with no memory of the night before. Pictures of her gang rape by 4 male classmates are uploaded on social media. People make comments. No one questions the boys. Everyone hates her.
Emma is left to deal with the consequences of that night, and they are awful. Her friends shun her, her parents are ashamed of her. The community blames her. She acted like a slut, she got what she deserved. She took drugs. She drank. She flirted with other boys, and yes, did have consensual sex with one of the accused at the party. She changed her story to the police. She contacted another of the accused boys after the incident. The bullying that she is subjected to by her peers was some of the most sadistic instances of harassment I’ve ever read before. It’s terrible.
Louise O’Neill’s decision to make Emma O’Donovan’s character an unlikeable one was a bold move. No one feels sorry for this victim, and in a lot of ways, YOU don’t either. The author’s choice to portray Emma in all of her flawed humanness forces you to confront your own prejudices about what rape is and what a rape victim is supposed to ‘behave’ like. It’s a spot-on, timely book; specifically in today’s age, where we are still (in 2016, mind you) debating the very definition of rape and consent.
The ending was just that, an ending. It isn’t happy. Nobody apologizes to Emma, nobody gets their day in court. Nothing is wrapped up. The scorn of the community continues, and Emma’s emotional torture (by others and upon herself) does not end. She will deal with this ugliness for the rest of her life, and she knows it.
This is a book that makes you pause and think. It’s not so much plot driven as it is a character study that is meant to challenge our understanding of what a rape victim is. In a perfect world we would extend Emma our support because she was taken advantage of without her consent. We would care. Sadly, we don’t. Louise O’Neill reminds you that it still isn’t a perfect world, and crimes like this continue to go on, whether it’s in Ireland or America or anywhere. It’s an ugly story, and I was all too glad to read and learn from it.