Althea & OliverAlthea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho
My rating: 5/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

They sit, both curled into angry balls, listening to the water lapping against the dock. Edging closer, she puts her arms tentatively around his neck. “It must be awful,” she says.

Relenting, he returns her embrace, and they huddle together in the dwindling purple light. “I missed my birthday.”

“I’ll make you a cake,” she says.

“I missed your birthday.”

“It rained.”

“It’s like a joke,” he says. “A total fucking joke.”

i loved this book, but it’s got one big landmine in that pisses off a lot of readers. their outrage is legitimate, and it also makes me a little jealous. i’m a notoriously dispassionate reader, and it’s always been something of a handicap for me because it prevents me from that necessary emotional investment with a text that allows normal people to cry or be scared when they read. but sometimes it’s an unexpected benefit, because i’m able to look at books clinically, without any emotional insertion-of-self into the text. i’m grateful to it here, because if that landmine had blown me up like so many other readers, i would have missed out on a really special book. approaching Althea & Oliver very simply as “something a person wrote,” i admire the fact that it’s both ballsy as hell and also accomplishes what i believe great books should – it presents a unique situation that inspires discussion. and love it or hate it, you gotta give it that.

i’m going to come back to that oft-referenced landmine in spoilertown, but there’s so much more to this book than that one emotional kaboom. and i did, in fact, feel emotional stirrings of my own in relation to other parts – there were scenes that wrecked me with their perfect distillations of tumultuous youth, and while i was nowhere near tears, even feeling an ache is pretty noteworthy. honestly, this book had me from the epigraph, which is pulled from my very favorite replacements song:

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the replacements are the perfect band for a particular kind of teen angst. they’re drunk and they’re rumpled and dirty and angry, they’re all about rejection and howling loneliness but they’re also funny as fuck. and if you wanna lambast me for f-bombing in a YA book review, go ahead, but also don’t read this book, which uses cursewords like crazy. you know – the way teenagers themselves do.

this book is a perfect match for that song – there is something inherently anthemic about it, something lost and looking-back and haunting. it takes place in the mid-90’s, and explores the very complicated relationship between althea and oliver – two high school juniors who have been best friends since they were six years old and have the kind of fierce and all-encompassing friendship that shuts everyone else out. their personalities complement each other – althea is the firebrand to oliver’s steadier mien, and they have a very physical, low-boundary friendship of face-touching and neck-smelling and cuddling and hand-holding and wrestling and snuggling, but the relationship is strictly platonic, even though althea is starting to want more than oliver in that department. probably because of all the mixed messages of such a tactile relationship. Oliver knows it’s not normal that he’s never had a girlfriend, that she’s never had a boyfriend, that they never even talk about what it would be like. To talk about sex would have inevitably drawn attention to the possibility that they might someday have it with each other, or that they would someday belong to other people. The territory was just too dangerous.

while althea’s feelings for oliver are changing, oliver himself begins to change as he suddenly begins manifesting the symptoms of kleine-levin syndrome, from wiki: a rare sleep disorder characterized by persistent episodic hypersomnia and cognitive or mood changes. Many patients also experience hyperphagia, hypersexuality and other symptoms. oliver will fall asleep for weeks, for months, and return to full consciousness with no memory of the gap. and it’s hard for him, because he’s waking up into a time that has not stood still for anyone but himself. “It’s more like you got into a time machine and it took you to into the future and you don’t like it here.” he goes to sleep in one season and wakes up to another, or he will reemerge to find althea’s dyed her hair black and taken up smoking, and everyone knows things that he has to hurry up and learn. he also experiences sleepwalker-like episodes in which he became a more aggressive version of himself; a humiliating side effect of an already debilitating, time-sucking disorder. during the times oliver is asleep, althea is also suffering – finding herself completely adrift, not knowing how long he will be “gone” each time and having to redefine herself as something other than althea-and-oliver through new friendships and deep self-scrutiny.

and then a thing happens.

here is where i will talk about it. and feel free to offer arguments to anything i might say in these spoiler tags, but please be considerate and spoiler-tag anything you post in the thread, or i’m just gonna delete it for the benefit of people who haven’t read the book or some of the other spoilery reviews. View Spoiler »

and after that, things all go to shit. but they go to shit in such a tremendously-written way. it becomes a completely different book as althea and oliver are separated and their individual paths are written with such honesty and insight into that whole kaleidoscope of helplessness and anger and self-recrimination and despair that characterize those formative years and then the ENDING! oh, it’s gutting perfection. here’s the thing- in some romance novels, be they YA or adult, conflicts are simple: “oh no, i like two people who are so different but who appeal to specific parts of my multifaceted personality and choosing one over the other means committing myself to the values and traits they bring out in me okay i choose this one the end.” and some are not really romance novels in the traditional sense but are more accurately categorized as love stories, as in “stories about love” where you have books like Wuthering Heights where love and passion are wild and explosive and everyone’s a destructive asshole but they certainly do showcase an aspect of love. althea & oliver is a love story for people who don’t like romance. it’s nowhere near as bleak as w.h., but it is heart-wrenchingly authentic.

i appreciate the complexities this book presents and all the passionate discussions it has provoked, but i think we have to remember, as readers, that presenting a situation is not the same as an author taking a moral stance. i don’t think it’s the responsibility of literature to present perfect role models; is it a good idea to murder your children to get back at a guy? nope. is it a good idea to keep your wife in an attic cuz she’s a little unstable while you dress up like a gypsy fortuneteller to prank a girl you have a crush on? nope. but these are inherently dramatic situations, and that’s all i personally need to consider a book successful or interesting or worth my reading time. do i want to hang out with althea in her filthy gutterpunk vegan squat? fuck, no! but do i think those scenes are written vividly and depict a reality for lots of young kids searching for their own path? fuck, yes!

do i feel weird that coby, who is not someone i would ever admire in the real world, is one of my favorite characters? there are a million reasons why he’s a dick for sure, but he’s the only one who sees how fucked up and destructive and parasitic althea and oliver’s relationship is and how much oliver is holding her back and he’s like some accidentally wise and drunk old frog sitting back and shaking his head at how needlessly tempestuous these two are.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” Coby says, reaching for the Old Crow again. “Things are just changing.”


it’s a vibrant and strong and honest book, and the way it’s been reduced to one controversial scene kinda makes me sad, but i get it. it can be hard to separate emotions from reading experiences. but for me, who wants to have a more emotional reading life, it’s also hard to see books dismissed on emotional grounds. and there’s a few things i just want to speak to here, at the risk of looking like i’m doing that batshit “you are reading it wrong” thing that people do. because i’m not. at all. but i’ve also seen books torn apart based on misunderstandings of the fundamentals of literature, so i kind of want to take a second to pop into educator mode here to address something i see on goodreads a lot, and maybe this is something younger readers haven’t yet been taught or realized on their own, but there’s a difference between characters and the author. i see it all the time – a reviewer dismissing an author or a book as “sexist” or “racist” or whatever because of something a character says. and with this book, there’s a criticism against the author based on a comment althea makes about a character’s halloween costume – What are you supposed to be?” she asks. “A date rapist? because it uses date rape as a punch line and that must never be done. but that’s althea, not the author. teenagers are frequently insensitive and provocative and prone to dark sarcastic humor, which is completely in keeping with the rest of althea’s personality. and considering this takes place in the 90’s, when this song was making the rounds, it’s clear the author is reflecting the time pretty well. the 90’s were a much less earnest time, i assure you. jokes were made and no one freaked out about it.

another complains that althea dyeing her hair black after emotional turmoil is a cliché. clichés are cliché for a reason – because they occur frequently. after my mom died (yes, in the mid-90’s), i cut my past-my-butt hair down to four inches on top, shaved the rest and dyed it red. teenagers are prone to making big dramatic physical changes because that’s something they can control when they feel powerless.

and as far as althea spending all her time pining for oliver – well, that’s something that teenage girls are good at. and oliver’s doing his share of pining, too – the two of them spend way too much time thinking about each other and it’s totally unhealthy. and when she’s not pining, althea reenacts badass scenes from rollerball with valerie. and breaks a guy’s nose. and kicks the shit out of another one. and has several pro-girl friendships, and a conversation where she basically says “no more boy-talk!” everything althea does, she does big. dangerously, disproportionately so. so i’m asking readers, like i’m asking oliver – what more do you want? readers – how much stronger and wilder and more unstereotypically “girly” do you want your female characters to be? and oliver – what is lacking in a fierce, devoted, funny girl who is willing to take care of you and loves baking but can also crack some skulls as needed? she’s a well-written character that is representative of a kind of girl i haven’t seen much of in YA.

in an objective big-picture critique of “are the book’s actions in keeping with the characters and situation the author has written?” this book is consistently true to itself and offers a really solid departure from some of the “everything is squeaky clean and works out for the best” YA that’s out there. because sometimes it’s just not that easy and to quote the great paul westerberg again:

The ones who love us best are the ones we’ll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best.
The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please.
If it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them.


there were so many things i was supposed to do today. instead, i read this. and i really don’t regret it, even though i know i will shake my fist at the sky once the repercussions start rolling in. this is a book i wish i’d read when i was in the process of growing up. it looks like a lot of people on here did not enjoy it, but for me it was a breath of fresh air and way more than i expected.

read my reviews on goodreads

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