Caroline O’Donoghue, the bestselling author of the YA fantasy novel All Our Hidden Gifts, has published several books for adults in the U.K. but makes her American adult debut with The Rachel Incident, a dual-timeline narrative that’s mostly set during Rachel Murray’s last year of university in Cork, Ireland.
In 2009, Rachel is living at home with her parents and working part time in a bookshop when she meets James Devlin, who’s just been hired as a bookseller. Rachel and James charm each other, begin a sudden bantering friendship—she’s fairly sure James is gay; he insists he’s not—and soon she’s moved out of her suburban family home and into his ramshackle downtown house.
When Rachel falls for her married English professor, Dr. Fred Byrne, both Rachel’s and James’ lives become entangled with Dr. Byrne and his wife, Deenie, who works in publishing. To Rachel, the older couple’s well-kept house and professional lives signify modern adulthood.
This is only the beginning of Rachel’s tumultuous year, one of haphazard and sometimes terrible decisions, heartbreaking first love and frequent despair—and all as the Great Recession squeezes everyone she knows. Rachel and James work on his sitcom screenplay based on their life together, and they dream, plan and save in order to leave conservative Ireland for London and a more fabulous life.
Counterpointing and narrating this chaotic year is the voice of an older Rachel, now in her early 30s, a journalist in London who’s pregnant with her first child. She’s still friends with James (mostly via texting), who’s now a comedy writer for a late-night TV talk show in New York City. The present-day Rachel has news for James that she’s not sure how to share.
In both timelines, but especially the earlier one, Rachel’s first-person voice and wonderfully off-kilter observations make her a character you want to settle in with. By turns comic and bittersweet, this is a tender tale of platonic and first love, as well as a sharp look at such issues as homosexuality and abortion in the more repressive Ireland of pre-repeal days. The Rachel Incident will likely draw comparisons to Sally Rooney’s work, but there’s more than a hint of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones here: a bright and funny voice in a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve.