Published by Ultimo Press | October 2021 | Fiction, Australian author
University campus culture was fresh for Diana Reid when she began writing Love & Virtue.
She had recently graduated from The University of Sydney, in early 2020 and, when COVID kyboshed her plans to tour with a musical theatre production she’d co-written, she sat down to pen her debut, which she describes as an “Australian campus novel”.
A self-confessed fan of the genre – in interviews naming favourites including Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Sally Rooney’s Normal People – Reid has been keen to emphasise that her novel is not autobiographical.
But it’s evident the observations she injects into the issues explored in the novel – including power, privilege, sex and consent – have been given extra vitality by the currency of her own campus experiences.
For any reader who’s known campus life, whether it was two years ago like Reid or more than two decades ago, like me, Love & Virtue takes you right back to those excitingly trepidatious days.
She conjures up that heady combination of joining a new group of young nascent friends, living in each other’s pockets, experimenting and overindulging, all at a vulnerable time in life when you’re trying on new identities to find your place in the world.
The story is narrated by Michaela, a high achieving 18-year-old from Canberra who was awarded a scholarship to study Philosophy at an elite Sydney university (unnamed, although unambiguously modelled on Reid’s own alma mater) and live in Fairfax, a fictional residential women’s college.
During orientation week, along with coming to grips with the juxtaposition of prestigious sandstone quadrangles and academic gowns, together with seedy drinking rituals and wearing hangover nausea “like a badge”, Michaela’s whip-smart confidence sees her drawn into the privileged lives of former private school students, including the boys from nearby college.
But by far the most dazzling person she meets is Eve, her ‘radiantly intelligent’ next-door neighbour in college.
Captivating from the outset, with ‘high, prominent cheekbones that assert themselves like contradictions’, Eve introduces Michaela to thinkers like Susan Sontag, ushers her to Women in Philosophy events, and debates with her the feminist merits of casual sex and the need for women to ‘cultivate a masculine frankness about their success’.
Michaela is inwardly thrilled to enter the intellectual world of her articulate and brilliant new friend.
Yet, as their bond tightens, Michaela also finds she is repelled by Eve’s contradictions – like her penchant for lamenting capitalism while wearing ‘vegan leather sneakers [that] cost several hundred dollars’ – and her proclivity to steer all conversations around to her own experiences in order to be seen as the smartest person in the room.
An undercurrent of competitive toxicity begins to swell between these two very different but equally gifted young women, and this becomes the catalyst for the novel’s narrative.
Aside from the absorbing events that unfold, these two characters become Reid’s vehicles for exploring the ‘grey’ in some age-old social dilemmas – like the corrupting forces of privilege and imbalanced power dynamics; and the highly topical and often distressing fine line between rape and consent, victimhood and empowerment.
In an ironic twist, and to underscore the greyness, Reid ultimately introduces a breach of consent between the two young women as the catalyst to bring about cultural change in the privileged institutions that have enabled breaches of consent to thrive.
While all that sounds terribly heavy, it’s wrapped in Reid’s witty, fast-paced prose among a cast of bright, complex, well-formed young characters.
As a debut, Love & Virtue is quite a triumph for Reid.
However, I couldn’t help feeling some plot points were a little forced, almost as though Reid had only included them to be able to raise philosophical dilemmas. For example, a clandestine sexual relationship between a student and a professor is introduced, which did its job of exploring the moral ambiguities swirling around power and choice, but personally I wished Reid had fashioned a less clichéd (and tiring!) scenario.
That aside, for those interested in the grey areas that pervade our society as seen through the eyes of young Australians caught up in contemporary campus culture, Love & Virtue delivers a nuanced view.