Title: Althea & Oliver
Author: Christina Moracho
2014 – YA – Realistic Fiction
The Story: Althea and Oliver have been best friends since childhood. She is hoping that the relationship will evolve into something more, but he seems disinterested. And then, Oliver suddenly gets sick. Not flu sick or cancer sick, but a sleep/neurological disorder kind of sick in which he falls asleep and stays asleep for weeks or even months. After he checks himself into a hospital in New York, seeking answers from a sleep study, Althea follows and finds her own group of friends in the city.
The Opening Line: “Would you rather walk barefoot across a mile of Legos or get a tattoo on the inside of your eyelid?”
Thoughts: I first heard about this title from the Teen Librarian Toolbox series on sexual violence in YA lit. I’ve been following the series closely, as it hits fairly close to home, so whenever they discuss a new title, I add it to my TBR. Anyway, this book made their list, so I checked it out one day as I was browsing at my local library.
My first thought is that even though Althea and Oliver are best friends, their relationship isn’t the greatest. I’ve been in friendships characterized by anger and arguments, and it isn’t fun. Nor is it sustainable. Luckily, my friendship is much better now, but had we continued at that pace, I’m not so sure we would still be friends. So watching Althea and Oliver’s relationship dynamic was painful. Dare I say that it even seems to be a bit of an abusive relationship on both parts? I know at least once Oliver physically hurt Althea, although unintentionally, and both have anger issues that inhabit and impact the entire story. Unfortunately, I’m guessing that a lot of teens, and even adults, are in friendships that have some of these unhealthy elements, so the portrayal is probably pretty accurate.
Another pervasive element of the novel is the sexual tension between Althea and Oliver. It seems inevitable that they will at least sleep together at some point, if not more, but the sexual relationship between them is also problematic. Warning: I’m gonna talk spoilers here, so you might wanna skip the rest of this paragraph! At one point, after a party, Oliver and Althea come really close to having sex. But Oliver explains to Althea that he isn’t ready, so nothing happens that night. Then, during one of Oliver’s sleep states, Althea comes to visit and ends up sleeping with Oliver. Now keep in mind that Oliver is sick and later has no memory of anything that occurs during these states, although in the moment it seems that he is awake and properly functioning. Which essentially means that Althea went against Oliver’s request to wait and instead took advantage of him when he was in a vulnerable position. Which is rape, my friends. When she tells Oliver what happens, claiming that she isn’t a rapist and that he wanted it too, he is understandably shocked and angry. Although they later resume an uneasy friendship, this incident marks a turning point in their relationship.
This element of the novel intrigued me because it’s a situation that we rarely hear about. Most rapes are committed by men and the victim is usually a woman. In this instance, Oliver is the victim, and it occurs while he is sick, which is also a unique element of the book. He is vulnerable and defenseless, and she took advantage of that situation to gain something she wanted. Although the book’s blurb calls it “the worst bad decision ever”, it’s in fact much deeper and more serious than that, and should be read as such. I do commend the author, however, for including this scene and drawing attention to a different type of rape to which readers might never have given much thought.
The rest of the book wasn’t really my cup of tea, from the incessant partying and drinking to Althea’s scrappy life in New York, but I do think that Moracho has created some very flawed, authentic characters who don’t have it all together. Too often, we like our books, movies, and other media with a tidy, happy ending, comfortable and politically correct. Althea & Oliver definitely isn’t that, but it is refreshing in a landscape filled with those types of books.