Review | An Irish woman looks back, with plenty of humor and heartbreak

If I’d been paying better attention or still had kids at home, I might have heard about the Irish writer Caroline O’Donoghue earlier. She’s a witty newspaper columnist in the United Kingdom, the author of a supernatural series for teens called “The Gifts” and the host of “Sentimental Garbage,” a podcast dedicated to “the culture we love that society can sometimes makes us feel ashamed of.”

O’Donoghue’s wry take on shame also animates “The Rachel Incident,” her first adult novel to be released in the United States, and now she’s got my full attention. The story feels significantly informed by her own transition from student life to what passes for professional life. But for all its cringing at the narcissism of youth, “The Rachel Incident” offers a tender reflection on those 20-something friendships that leave a permanent imprint.

Although the novel opens in 2022, most of the story takes place back around 2010, cast in the heat of regret and the glow of nostalgia. The narrator, Rachel Murray, recalls living in Cork while finishing up an English degree. One of the many lovable things about this novel is O’Donoghue’s kindhearted perspective on the awkwardness of the college years, that weird period when you’re self-conscious enough to be embarrassed but not quite self-controlled enough to feign maturity. “I hadn’t grown out of the schoolgirl giggle habit,” Rachel confesses. “I was always nervous and I was always laughing my head off.”

Her once upper-middle-class family has been crushed by the recession, and local conditions are so bad that “businessman suicides” are a regular feature on the news. But at 20 years old and five feet, 11 inches tall, Rachel wants only two things: “to be in love and to be taken seriously.” She has neither.

She does have a part-time job at a bookstore, though, and there she meets James Devlin, a fellow young bookseller. Raised in an unstable family that can’t send him to college, James is funny, bold and committed to an unconvincing imitation of heterosexuality. No matter. Rachel has an open mind about gay people and imagines that class differences don’t matter either.

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James and Rachel quickly arrive at an understanding, rent a ratty flat together and form a friendship that will shape the rest of their lives. “Over the course of just a month,” she says, “I would be colonized by James on a molecular level, and my personality would mold around his wherever there was space to do so.”

With sex off the table, the two of them are free to concentrate on promoting each other’s romantic interests. Their first project is to ingratiate Rachel with her popular English professor, Dr. Byrne. In the novel’s first great adventure, they cook up a plan to fudge orders at the store and create an unlikely wave of demand for Dr. Byrne’s new book, “The Kensington Diet,” a treatise on Irish writers during the famine.

That scheme works surprisingly well, but it utterly upends Rachel’s designs on her professor. Eventually, her harmless bit of accounting fraud at the bookstore mutates into a messy knot of romantic deceit that threatens to wreck a marriage and a friendship. Arriving at this incident — equally comic and disastrous — you’re bound to experience a hiccup of laughter punctuated by shock.

But it’s the sustained insight of “The Rachel Incident” that keeps the plot rushing forward. O’Donoghue has a sharp eye for the tumultuous life of a young woman struggling to figure out who she is. “I don’t know who I was trying to impress,” Rachel says. “I did not want a boyfriend; I did want romance. I wanted passion; I did not want to be someone who was known as easy. I was desperate to be touched; I was terrified of being ruined.”

That impossibly conflicted mind-set — at once modern and Victorian — is an apt reflection of the times, what the narrator calls the “crossroads of female messaging” that she and her friends were contending with. As she reminds us, “Puberty in the 2000s was Paris Hilton’s sex tape and Britney Spears’s crotch shots and Amy Winehouse drunk on ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks,’ and if any of that happened now we would have found a way to celebrate it, but then it was disgusting. We thought a lot about the abortions we weren’t allowed to have and the locked-up girls of the Magdalene laundries. We swore to each other, at my girls’ school, that we had never masturbated and we accused each other of doing it on the sly.”

O’Donoghue demonstrates such sympathy for that universal moment in every young person’s life when they detach “from any kind of inherited moral system” and confront first loves, first jobs, first deaths. But she’s also rooted that story to a very specific historical moment of cultural upheaval, after the Celtic Tiger crashed and the only thing the Irish economy seemed able to produce was a surfeit of gloom. She conveys what it felt like to solidify one’s character when the old standards were in flux. In particular, she allows her heroine to be deeply uncomfortable with the practice of abortion and just as deeply outraged that the procedure was not available in Ireland. It’s that social complexity that raises this engaging comedy of manners into something more profoundly satisfying.

“The story was all so Irish that I felt embarrassed,” Rachel writes as she looks back at the great confession of her misdeeds. “There was no way of telling the story without paraphrasing it as a Maeve Binchy novel. Bright young girl. Insular little city. Life almost ruined.”

That’s all wrong. O’Donoghue has found a way to tell this story in scenes both heartbreaking and funny. She may not have Binchy’s sweetness, but she illuminates these Irish lives with a light all her own.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

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