Love and Virtue by Diana Reid review – sex, shame and the social minefields of campus life

Set on the campus of a prestigious university in Sydney, Diana Reid’s debut novel Love and Virtue is told through the dry and witty perspective of Michaela, a first-year undergrad student who is living on a scholarship at Fairfax College. She forms a friendship with the girl in the room beside her, Eve, and their relationship becomes the catalyst for the narrative of this book, which is rooted in feminism, sexuality, and the self-conscious intellectual and social discovery that marks coming of age.

Michaela is whip-smart and gutsy, trying to harmonise two worlds with some dissonance: the drunken partying of her fellow residents at college, and the intellectual melting pot of her classes and her friendship with Eve. This is a young woman who is hungry for academic knowledge, but her ambition is still cowed by the desire for social approval from her peers.

This is a book that deals with unrequited love, the deconstruction of social and political class, the unpacking of power and subordination in romantic relationships, wrapped in a coming-of-age narrative. It’s also an excoriating indictment of rape culture on Australian university campuses.

I was a university student in the mid-2000s, when exposés into the ritual hazing and sexual assault of students on uni residential campuses were dominating headlines, and the picture Reid paints is nauseatingly familiar. Michaela is subjected to a drunken game of “never have I ever”, which reveals among her classmates a sexual partner she was too drunk to remember sleeping with, but who has clearly shared his exploits around campus. He is congratulated while she is publicly shamed.

It’s the kind of social minefield Michaela and her peers navigate daily. They ache to fit in, and are prepared to sacrifice their dignity and integrity in that pursuit. Michaela reflects with insight that the young men she is engaging with daily on campus are likely to remain untouched by their sordid acts of youth, because they have power and financial privilege on their side.

Meanwhile, as her friendship with Eve continues to grow, Michaela yearns to enter the intellectual world she glimpses in her friend’s articulate and confident persona. This desire becomes personified in Professor Paul Rosen, with whom Michael swiftly becomes entangled and who becomes the counterweight in her social seesaw between youthful campus life and the more engaging, adult world that awaits her post-university.

Love and Virtue is a formidable debut novel. The writing is punchy and clever, with characters so deeply drawn that they feel like friends and enemies from a former life. Michaela is a refreshingly complex narrator, clearly flawed in her judgment but also achingly honest, allowing the reader into every humiliating low and soaring height she experiences.

Reid, like so many younger, female novelists these days, has been compared to Sally Rooney, but her protagonist is not the jaded and distant woman that features in so many of those novels – both Rooney’s and those held up alongside her. Instead, Michaela is emotional, imperfect, complicated. Perhaps the only aspect of her that doesn’t quite ring true is her unwillingness to confront the young man who transgresses on her sexual autonomy (“assault” doesn’t feel accurate in the context of the novel’s exploration of victimhood and empowerment). As an otherwise outspoken feminist, willing to go against the grain of the social status quo, this reaction from Michaela feels inconsistent with her character development.

Equally, the relationship between Michaela and her professor feels a little stale in what is otherwise a very fresh and exciting novel. Professor Rosen is only a decade or so older than the students he teaches, but already has the soft, sunken physique of a man past his prime and a cranky demeanour that suggests his dissatisfaction with where his life has taken him. His desire to recapture his youth by sleeping with an 18-year-old feels like an obvious cliche, and Michaela’s attraction to him doesn’t entirely square with her character.

Michaela’s obsession with, and eventual betrayal by Eve, foreshadowed in the opening pages of the novel, also jars. Reid draws Eve in thick strokes – she is conventionally beautiful but also socially alternative, incredibly smart and simultaneously obnoxious. At one point, as if to really hammer home the unique depth of their friendship, Eve kisses Michaela – a moment of titillation that doesn’t seem to add anything other than scandal to their already tense friendship, and feels like a cheap use of sexuality in what is otherwise a very heteronormative novel.

However, these inconsistencies don’t detract from what is ultimately an engaging and thought-provoking novel that has returned to my thoughts many times in the weeks since I read it. Love and Virtue is a multilayered book that will satisfy those looking for a page-turner to devour in a few sittings, as well as those looking to be challenged on conceptions of power, gender and choice in the age of identity.

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