The Rachel Incident by Caroline O'Donoghue
Published by Knopf
Publication date: June 27, 2023
Rachel is working in London as a journalist when an unfamiliar man throws out a name from her past that catapults her back to her university days. From this modern-day beginning author Caroline O’Donoghue jumps back to 2008 when the Irish economy was in freefall, Rachel was in her third year of university, and she meets a man who changes her life. With all the attendant angst of the age The Rachel Incident captures the zeitgeist of the times and coming-of-age with wicked humor and sharp prose.
Life had been straightforwardly middleclass for Rachel with her school tuition paid by her parents and everything else covered by a job at a local bookstore. She even has a boyfriend, so nothing can explain the fizz of excitement she feels when meeting James, a new employee. His exuberance and sly wit awakened an unfamiliar part of herself. When he asks her to move into a dilapidated house he wants to rent, she agrees. From there the two tumble into an intense friendship that leaves little room for anyone else in Rachel’s life.
Some books embrace the reader with the soothing temperature of warm water, but The Rachel Incident was as electric and bracing as an ice bath for me. Namely, because I had a James in my life at one time and O’Donoghue’s replay of the intensity and codependence is unnervingly accurate. The hours of phone calls, the inside jokes, the emotional intimacy, all serving to create a private world, it’s all there. But in Rachel’s case James’s adoration leaves her being subsumed by him and his need to be perceived a certain way. She ends up sacrificing her own integrity to protect the aspects of his life only she knows.
For as much as James is a planet Rachel orbits O’Donoghue excels in recapturing life inside Rachel’s head. There is so much to recognize in this 20-year-old woman trying to be grown-up, but having no idea what it really means. There is the foolishness of acting without thinking, the relationship drama with her boyfriend, the fears over what comes next in life. As readers we already know, but while The Rachel Incident wraps up a bit too neatly the novel still elicits all the uncertainties of coming-of-age in a way that resonates.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Mariner Books in exchange for an honest review.*