In 2022 London, Rachel Murray is a pregnant journalist mostly assigned to stories concerning her native Ireland. On a night out with fellow ex-pats, a chance remark causes her to reflect back on her time as an undergraduate student living in Cork, when she’d studied English, worked in a bookshop, lived with closeted male best friend and nurtured a crush on her favorite professor.
So far, so routine. Even within the novel Rachel discusses living out a cliched existence as Bookshop girl. But I’ll give author Caroline O’Donoghue credit: the plot goes somewhere I did not expect at all. However, that is not the same as saying I enjoyed it.
Eventually, Rachel’s professor, Dr. Byrne, and his wife, Deenie, take an interest in the lives of Rachel and James, perhaps trying to recapture their youth or just enjoying seeing it play out before them. Unfortunately, these entanglements become messy, feelings are hurt, and lives irrevocably changed. Sally Rooney comparisons are inevitable considering the author’s nationality and gender, but this really does feel quite a bit like a less composed version of Conversations With Friends.
I try to judge a book based on how well the author executed on their intention, as opposed to whether or not I like the characters or approved of their actions. But that’s proving rather difficult for me to do with The Rachel Incident, because I honestly can’t figure out what O’Donoghue intended with this story. It seems like she wants this to be a portrait of a great friendship, but if that’s true she’s well off the mark, as the friendship between Rachel and James is oddly toxic considering the way Rachel speaks about him in her first-person narration. Rachel and James call out the parallels to Will & Grace, while still embodying a very stereotypical friendship between a straight white woman and a gay white man. Similarly, O’Donoghue introduces a hot-button political issue into the plot, but does so in a way that feels rather old-fashioned in its resolution and doesn’t really challenge any assumptions or provoke any conversation.
What did O’Donoghue want the reader to take away from The Rachel Incident? I doubt she intended this book to come of as a trifle about a toxic friendship between selfish, immature people, but maybe she did.