Reviewed: Diana Reid, Love & Virtue, Ultimo Press
What makes campus life so captivating? The things that draw me to it are the same things that repulse me. For a brief moment I lived within the sheltered walls of a residential college—arriving at 17 as a scholarship student, soggy and dishevelled from crying on the drive from my rural hometown. As a result, the spectacle of collegiate experiences appeal to me on a base level. Even before university, my mind and heart felt connected to the cloistered British prep school settings of Enid Blyton’s stories, so different to where I found myself located in the world. I would cut out scholarship ads from the paper and put them next to my mum’s morning cuppa, begging her to let me leave her at the tender age of 12 so I could experience what I then thought of as the ‘real world’. My friend and I often joke about our fantasies of finding our tween selves in boarding school despite knowing that it would probably have been hell for us, Blak and queer as we are.
This unnatural-yet-habitual turn towards the world of elite education brought me to Diana Reid’s Love & Virtue, an attempt at a modern campus novel à la Sally Rooney’s massively popular Normal People and Conversations with Friends. Reid is writing into a market hot for stories that confront contemporary questions of power and morality in insular college environments but that is lacking a modern Australian take. Although there are some precedents in Helen Garner’s The First Stone (1992), a work of nonfiction that detailed sexual harassment at a university residential college in Melbourne, and the indie film Love & Other Catastrophes (1996), these were set pre-internet and pre-#MeToo. Under that hashtag, the sharing of (mostly) white women’s stories amplified an expectation that people—namely men—accused of rape would be excoriated and exiled. Instead, the overwhelming result was for business to continue as usual. Some high-profile names have faced a degree of punishment, but the majority (Aziz Ansari; Louis C.K.) have been materially unaffected. Yet despite this lack of meaningful change, a rhetoric has arisen of so-called false rape accusations ruining men’s lives,1 as they reckon with a certain ‘fall from grace’ and are no longer seen as a ‘good person’.
Love & Virtue reflects this political and cultural climate, as well as Reid’s own experiences living at one of the University of Sydney’s infamous colleges during the late 2010s. The novel revolves around two young white women, Michaela and Eve. As Reid has acknowledged, their relationship is a ‘toxic female friendship’ familiar to many of us: the overly confident Eve is equal parts admired and envied by the less worldly Michaela.2 From the first chapter we are made aware of the complicated nature of their friendship: an older Michaela introduces the story, speaking of the pain she still feels at seeing Eve succeed, before we shift to a younger Michaela and Eve meeting for the first time at their residential college.
Through their relationship, and the events that transpire during their first year, we explore how social hierarchies influence and are reflected in different relationships. Eve is filthy rich and beautiful while Michaela is decidedly middle class and preoccupied with whether she fits the beauty standards typified by Eve. Power dynamics are present in the upper-crust milieu that Michaela finds herself simultaneously mocking and seeking acceptance in, and the men with whom she interacts, including a classic teacher–student liaison between Michaela and her Moral Theory professor, Paul. Like in Rooney’s novels, to which Love & Virtue has often been compared, characters casually discuss political issues that may or may not directly affect their lives: offshore detention, cultural appropriation, socialisation under the patriarchy, social capital and the ever-looming issues of sex and consent.
In focusing on Eve’s and Michaela’s psyches and motivations, Reid may have struck a cultural nerve, unveiling a particular preoccupation with the morality of and among white women, particularly those in exclusive circles. In broader popular culture, there is a level of obsession with determining whether someone, particularly a woman, is ‘good’ or not. Perhaps this is because, as Alison Phipps has observed, ‘Historically, bourgeois white women’s power has been based on ideas of virtue and goodness.’3
Reid portrays flawed characters dealing with complex situations, and readers are left questioning their moral certainty, just as Paul hopes his students will leave his class ‘less sure about what’s right and wrong than when they started’. This can seem like a laudable aim. As Ursula K. Le Guin stated in her speech ‘Some Assumptions about Fantasy’:
Immature people crave and demand moral certainty: This is bad, this is good. Kids and adolescents struggle to find a sure moral foothold in this bewildering world; they long to feel they’re on the winning side, or at least a member of the team. To them, heroic fantasy may offer a vision of moral clarity. Unfortunately, the pretended Battle Between (unquestioned) Good and (unexamined) Evil obscures instead of clarifying, serving as a mere excuse for violence—as brainless, useless, and base as aggressive war in the real world.4
Perhaps in looking at the grey spots of social interactions we might gain some sort of clarity. There are two interrelated situations in Love & Virtue that challenge the characters’ and the audience’s ideas of a morally ‘good’ person. The first is a sexual encounter that occurs between Michaela and a male student, Nick, but which Michaela does not remember until prompted by her peers much later. Michaela sees the incident as ‘your classic drunken one-night stand, with bad optics’, the ‘optics’ being that Michaela was so drunk she couldn’t remember having sex, raising the question of consent. Eve, on the other hand, is outraged and calls it how she sees it: rape. This becomes one of the central questions of the book, if what happened between Michaela and Nick was indeed rape, is Nick (who later dies in an accident that may have been suicide) a bad person? Who gets to decide?
Later, Eve’s decision initially to investigate the ‘toxic culture’ of colleges for the university paper turns into Eve taking Michaela’s experience as her own. This launches Eve’s career as a celebrated public feminist, as she unveils issues of sexual assault on campus on TV and, eventually, in her own book. This betrayal is reminiscent of the uproar surrounding ‘Cat Person’, where Kristen Roupenian, author of the viral New Yorker short story, appropriated details of Alexis Nowicki’s life into her story without Nowicki’s consent;5 and the controversy that arose after it was found that social media influencer Caroline Calloway’s writing was largely ghost-written by her former friend Natalie Beach, who was uncredited and unpaid.6
At the co-option of her story, Michaela is rightly furious at her agency being imposed upon but is seemingly more preoccupied with whether Eve pities her than whether she was assaulted. She blames Eve for Nick’s death, accusing her of hounding him with sexual-assault allegations. Michaela is hellbent on making Eve aware of the consequences of her actions. But Nick is still a ‘great guy’, even in death; Michaela views Nick as equally victimised by Eve’s duplicity and self-righteousness. Even Paul, the professor who crosses the student–teacher boundary, is offered more room to be ethically ambiguous than Eve. At one point Michaela reflects that ‘rules only apply to certain kinds of people’, implying that the rich are exempt from accountability; but the men of Love & Virtue do not seem to have to face up to what they’ve done, either.
While Michaela is mostly silent on the way gender impacts her social relationships, she tends to be outspoken about the class stratification evident in elite institutions such as colleges, where most students come from wealthy, private-school backgrounds. Despite her blunt critique of Eve’s dismissal of her scholarship (which she treats as an ‘accessory’ that ‘at one time … expressed her intellect’), it seems that Michaela and Eve aren’t so different. While Michaela is clearly uncomfortable with the show of wealth at college, she is a white woman from a university-educated family, able to fit in with her peers somewhat seamlessly despite the perceived hardship of her upbringing.
It’s worth noting here that Michaela is not meant to be a perfect political agent, nor a representation of the author’s politics; Reid has stated that she is dedicated to creating authentic characters over and above ‘embodiments of political and philosophical positions’.7 It might be that the dynamics between Michaela and Eve reflect some kind of reality—at least the one Michaela lives in—where, no thanks to patriarchy, women are more likely to turn on each other than men, and where female friendships are tinged with jealousy and resentment as much as there is respect. It may also be true that women can be just as self-serving and power-grabbing in the quest to achieve upward mobility. But surely it’s common knowledge by now that, as one of the male characters states, ‘Women are people too … And some people are cows.’ We know, through popular culture and lived experiences, that women can be awful; in this sense, Reid is not telling us anything new.
At the core of Michaela’s rage towards Eve is the question of what stories are worth telling publicly, and who gets to decide when and how to tell them. Turning these questions on the book itself, we might ask, as Reid has pre-empted,8 who cares? While she has indicated that we should at least think about the issues she explores in the novel because ‘the people who attend these institutions go on to achieve great power and influence’,9 Love & Virtue seems to me to be one of those books that speaks only to one subset of human experience but is regarded as if it depicts a universally relatable ‘real world’.
Indeed, who cares? I do not care about the dynamics between the middle and upper classes and would prefer for class to be abolished altogether. I do not care about women skewering women, at least not in this setting, where one of the only characters to take a hard-line stance against sexual assault is the one who is maligned the most. I do not care to question whether a drunken sexual encounter is rape or not when I know the real issues go beyond the individual to the structural, not just at elite colleges but also in society at large. And yet I picked up the book, drawn like the fly I am to the proverbial honey, because these stories continue to tempt me well into adulthood. Other readers have been drawn in too, perhaps to relive their university days, or to engage with conversations around sex and consent, which, while still culturally relevant, are more readily anticipated now that they are part of mainstream discourse.
Love & Virtue has been received well, unambivalently so; a quick look at the publisher’s website shows a long list of accolades. Reid’s aptitude for writing shows in descriptions such as ‘the semen-stiff shores of Pornhub’; elsewhere, a room has an ‘orange tint, so it was not so much dark and dank like a cave, but dark and plastic, like Tupperware with pasta sauce left at the bottom of a bag’. Reid’s created world and characters feel unnervingly real but, as Michaela aptly asserts in the novel, all this attention ‘confirms their lifelong belief that they’re all big fucking deals’. With the clarity afforded by experiencing, and then leaving behind, a sadistic and solipsistic college environment, I have realised—finally—that my attention is best placed elsewhere. •
Ellen O’Brien is a Garigal/Walkeloa writer and editor. Her prose and poetry has appeared in a number of publications, including the Sydney Review of Books and Meanjin.
- Karlyn Borysenko, ‘The Dark Side of #MeToo: What Happens when Men are Falsely Accused’, Forbes, February 2020, <https://www.forbes.com/sites/karlynborysenko/2020/02/12/the-dark-side-of-metoo-what-happens-when-men-are-falsely-accused/>.
- Interview with Diana Reid, Roaring Stories Bookshop, September 2021, <https://www.roaringstories.com.au/everyone-is-so-sure-of-what-they-think-diana-reid-on-her-new-australian-campus-novel-love-virtue/>
- Alison Phipps, ‘White tears, white rage: Victimhood and (as) violence in mainstream feminism’, European Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 1, February 2021, <https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1367549420985852>.
- Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘Some Assumptions about Fantasy’, June 2004, <https://www.ursulakleguin.com/some-assumptions-about-fantasy>
- Alexis Nowicki, ‘“Cat Person” and Me’, Slate, July 2021, <https://slate.com/human-interest/2021/07/cat-person-kristen-roupenian-viral-story-about-me.html>.
- Natalie Beach, ‘I Was Caroline Calloway’, The Cut, September 2019, <https://www.thecut.com/2019/09/the-story-of-caroline-calloway-and-her-ghostwriter-natalie.html>.
- ‘Diana Reid on female friendships and rivalry in Love & Virtue’, Booktopia, September 2021,
- ‘Diana Reid on Love & Virtue’, interview by Georgia Brough, Books+Publishing, July 2021. <https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/07/28/190456/diana-reid-on-love-virtue/>.
- ‘Diana Reid on Love & Virtue’.