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You’re probably under the impression that this is a cool, edgy love story about two best friends falling in love. I know because that’s the assumption I made before starting Althea and Oliver. I was horribly disappointed. I don’t write book reviews, but this book made me so angry I had to.
This book is an unbelievably sexist mess. Moracho tries to make Althea seem like cool, angry, confused badass but only successfully creates a whiney rapist. RAPIST.
Because what’s described in the synopsis as “the worst bad decision ever” is actually a rape. It’s a rape because rape is a word that has a definition (sexual intercourse against a person without that person’s consent) and that definition meets Althea’s actions. Believe me. I checked the dictionary and the criminal code. It fits.
*Serious spoilers start here. But I strongly suggest you don't read this book, so maybe keep reading anyway.
Althea has sex with Oliver during one of his Klein-Levin Syndrome episodes, during which time he wakes up to experience a period of “childlike mental acuity”. He has no self-control, no understanding of his own actions and, later on, has no memory of what’s happened. Althea knows all of this and despite the fact that earlier in the book Oliver tells her that he is “not ready to have sex” has sex with him. Althea is in a position of power over Oliver. It is her responsibility to stop them from having sex.
So regardless of how Oliver and Althea feel about the situation, it is a rape. According to the criminal code, it’s a rape because Oliver did not give consent or permission for the act to take place. This isn’t a grey area, and it isn’t up for debate. And if the roles had been reversed, there wouldn’t have been a debate. Because if Oliver was a girl and Althea was a boy, anyone would say that it was rape.
That’s just the first instance of Moracho’s ridiculous sexism. Later on in the novel there’s a discussion between Oliver and his friend Kentucky, during which Kentucky convinces Oliver that he should feel happy that his beautiful best friend has sex with him, even without his permission. When Oliver first insinuates that it was he who had sex with Althea during one of his episodes, Kentucky is horrified. He can’t even say the word “rape.” But when he finds out Althea had sex with Oliver, well, Oliver should feel so lucky. Who cares if he didn’t consent?
There’s also a part where when confessing to Oliver that they had sex (months later), Althea asks him if he thinks she “held him down and forced him”. She asks if he thinks he didn’t enjoy it. This a misapprehension Moracho perpetuates, even while it seems as if she’s trying to fight back against slut-shaming. (I’m completely against slut-shaming, but rapist-shaming is a completely different matter). Instead she shares a belief that rape only happens when someone is physically bound and unable to fight back. But what about people who are roofied? And what about people who are blackmailed? Even if people who are coerced into sex aren’t rape victims, they’ve at least been subject to some kind of sexual abuse. Moracho also makes it seem like because Oliver can’t have been raped since he physically enjoyed it. That’s ridiculous. Sex is primal and biological; no matter how it’s related to our minds, when a body is sexually stimulated it’s very much likely to become aroused. Rape victims are often stimulated by their abusers, but that doesn’t mean that they were “asking for it”. Also, Oliver’s disorder, Klein-Levin Syndrome, is characterized by periods of hypersexuality. Obviously, he was going to enjoy it.
Althea is an annoying character for a lot of reasons. She’s whiny and she doesn’t care about anyone other than herself. But let’s face it: us teenagers are selfish. Even if Althea’s selfishness is excessive, it helps her seem a little more believable. However, Althea really does take her self-absorption to an extreme level: she abandons her father and doesn’t care about her mother. She lives with a bunch of poor bohemian teenagers without paying rent. And she only cares about what she did to Oliver because it makes him mad at her. Really. That’s the only reason she cares about having sex with him.
Moracho tries to make the reader sympathise with Althea. We’re supposed to feel bad for poor, impulsive, misunderstood Althea, whose best friend doesn’t love her back. We’re supposed to relate to her.
Besides the rape, there’s another pretty bad example of sexism in Althea’s friendship with Coby. I’d already stopped paying much attention to what was happening in the book by the time I got to this part (I was only reading because I was sure that at some point Moracho was going to actually deal with the rape -- that doesn’t happen), but I still don’t see how Althea is justified in beating Coby up. She’s just as guilty as he is in everything they do. And when Coby and Althea have sex, it’s consensual; she actually initiates it. But for whatever reason Althea thinks that she has the right to beat Coby into a bloody pulp. And Althea and Coby’s friends play it off by saying that he probably ‘deserved it’. Now, imagine if Coby beat Althea horribly. Do you think her friends would still say she ‘deserved it’?
The rape is critical to the storyline of the rest of the book. It sets the rest of the events in Althea and Oliver in motion, leading to the end of this book, which is pretty romantic in a modern sense of the word. In that way, I could argue that Moracho romanticises or glorifies rape. That’s up for discussion. What’s not up for discussion is that she most certainly trivialises it. Not only is the rape passed over as largely unimportant, it’s also excused because Althea had been pining after Oliver. So let me ask, if a hot guy is pining after a cute girl, does that make it okay for him to have sex with her without her permission? Moracho excuses, diminishes, trivialises and largely ignores a rape. She also tells jokes with rape as the punch line, such as when Althea sees her “friend” Coby at a Halloween party and asks, “What are you supposed to be? A date rapist?” The irony here is that this scene takes place after Althea rapes Oliver.
I’m not against books that deal with rape or sexism. But I have a HUGE issue with this book because although the rape is what causes Althea and Oliver’s actions leading to the end of the book, it’s almost forgotten by the end. It is at no point discussed or dealt with. And while I know that in real life these things aren’t always dealt with, I don’t believe that Moracho left anything unresolved in an attempt to make the book more believable. And she wasn’t trying to start any kind of discussion or make any kind of “artistic” statement. I believe that she genuinely doesn’t understand the implications of what she’s written. She doesn’t understand that what Althea does to Oliver is rape, even though she’s a girl and he’s a boy. That’s why this book is sexist. That’s why I will strongly encourage anyone NOT to read this book.
I’m all for freedom of expression. But Moracho clearly bit off more than she could chew with this book. No matter how nice the prose is, this book isn’t okay. I’ve seen girls as young as ten or eleven pick it up because the cover is so innocent, and walk away reading it. That terrifies me, because reading other reviews of this book, I see that a lot of people don’t even recognise that the rape is a rape, or how strongly this book plays to a misandrist double-standard. I don’t think that this book should be promoted by bookstores or publishers or book bloggers or anyone else for that matter. It’s not quite Mein Kampf, so it should probably still be sold, but I wouldn’t argue that there should be some kind of disclaimer in it. If Moracho was a responsible author, she’d at least release an author’s note or something. I’m sixteen myself and I can tell you that her prime audience, teenagers, are impressionable. And what’s she doing is propagating dangerous, sexist misapprehensions.
Ask yourself, whether you’re a boy or a girl: How would you feel if someone had sex with you while you were sleeping? And you couldn’t remember it later on.
Do yourself a favour. Don’t read this book.