Asking For It by Louise O’Neill
When Emma O’Donovan goes to a party one night, she’s on top of the world. The next day, her whole world comes crashing down around her.
Asking For It by Louise O’Neill is about the devastating consequences of rape culture in today’s society and how one girl’s life is forever changed after one night that she can’t remember. Asking For It was declared Book of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2015, a YA Book Prize Nominee in 2016, and was a Michael L. Printz Award Nominee in 2017.
A Quick Word:
I wanted to add a trigger-warning to this review. Some sensitive topics, such as rape, are discussed below. There is some minor language from quotes drawn from the book as well.
Emma O’Donovan is considered the most beautiful girl in her town of Ballinatoom, Ireland. She is popular, she is confident and self-assured. When she attends a huge party, all her friends and schoolmates can see that she’s the It girl.
But when she wakes up the next day, she can’t remember last night. And what’s more, none of her friends will speak to her, everyone is laughing behind her back, and her Facebook is blowing up with comments. When she discovers photos of herself from the party, photos that have completely ruined her reputation, Emma is plunged into a new reality, one where she is a pariah and not the most popular girl anymore.
When a criminal investigation is then launched, Emma finds herself under the media spotlight as everyone around her begins choosing sides. Despite her own beliefs about that night, everyone thinks they know what happened. Instead of being the center of attention, all Emma wants now is for everything, even herself, to disappear.
Some minor spoilers – if you haven’t read the book, you might want to wait to read this review. Nothing major, just a heads up!
To say this book is powerful is an understatement. I think this book is a mandatory read for teenagers and adults alike. What O’Neill has done here is important. This book discusses rape culture from the perspective of a girl who never wanted to be the posterchild for Rape Victim, who actively avoids saying the word rape, who counsels others not to claim they were raped. This book is especially impactful now with the #metoo movement in full force.
I think the way O’Neill handles this subject matter is really smart. Emma is at first a not very likeable character. She is brash, she is flippant about her friend’s personal feelings, she is narcissistic. But when she finds herself the victim of rape, she refuses to acknowledge what happened to her, even as she is slighted again and again, after she is deserted by her friends, her parents can’t look her in the eye, and the rest of the town wants nothing to do with her. It is in this situation that it becomes painfully clear exactly why Emma does not want to use the word “rape.” In current times, with the thoughts and opinions on rape, women appear to be the only ones to blame.
“‘No one forced the drink down her throat, or made her take shit. And what guy was going to say no if it was handed to him on a plate?’ She laughs. ‘She was fucking asking for it.’”Girls discussing Emma in the bathroom, p. 142
She was asking for it. The line is repeated again and again throughout the novel and the brilliant thing about O’Neill making Emma unlikeable at the beginning is that it forces you to see that, despite her being unlikeable, you can’t help want to protect her, to shield her, to defend her from all the people that are now tearing her down. As each new event unfolds, Emma’s life becomes more and more pitiable and my anger at the attitudes and ideas expressed about her grew. This book really hit me in the gut and I can say that if, by the end of this book, you are not on Emma’s side, then you’re the reason why this book exists.
O’Neill is trying to change society here. As she says in her the afterword, we need to talk about rape and consent and victim blaming. We also need to talk about slut shaming and double standards. This book is a great place to start and I really came away from it with a powerful anger to want to change things, to address this issue to the best of my ability. And because of that, I can applaud this book for being a powerful tool to open eyes and start conversations about these topics.
Literary Value: 4/5
I thought the writing in this book was really strong. O’Neill’s narrative voice for Emma is, in my opinion, flawless. I could feel what Emma was feeling, I could understand where she stood on everything, I could empathize with her. She came alive as a real person, and what’s more, I think she stands as an entirely relatable character, whether you’ve experienced what she has or not.
I liked the way this book was laid out, the before and the after of this catastrophic event. You get a good sense of Emma’s character before and then in the after, her change appears so starkly and in your face. The tension and the reactions are heightened because of this separation. I like that you never truly know the details of that night, all you have are what Emma has stated, and since she can’t remember, it forces you, the reader, to have to choose for yourself – do you believe Emma or not? O’Neill makes it very clear whose side you should be on, but she doesn’t do so in a way that feels patronizing or manipulative. Emma’s actions and thoughts slowly draw you in and it is her well-developed character that allows you to see her as a real person, and thus connect her with anyone in real life who has been in her situation.
There is a really interesting interplay between Emma’s current thoughts and the way she relates things to the past. I think it’s well balanced, you get a mix of what Emma was like as a child, or a glimpse of her experiences, and that is then contrasted with her current situation. It makes for a stark relief and in this way, you can’t help but feel more while reading.
Entertainment Factor: 4/5
I read this book quickly, even though I had to continually set it down and take a break. This book moves fast and it’s hard. It’s really hard to read what happens to Emma. O’Neill doesn’t let up throughout the whole book, so I had to take it in bits and pieces otherwise I would lose my mind – either in anger or sadness, or both. Though this book is on the sad side, I couldn’t help but “enjoy” it as a well-told story. I couldn’t put it down and I felt compelled to keep reading. I wish the ending were different, but I can see why O’Neill chose to end it the way she did. It is unsatisfying but that is purposeful, so I can’t fault her too much for it.
Cover Art Rating: 5/5
I think this cover is a perfect cover. It clues you in pretty well to what will happen in the pages of this book. Emma is considered the most beautiful girl and the fact that they use a Barbie on the cover works on many levels: it reflects how Emma is held up as a perfect example of beauty, it also denotes how society lives and breathes certain standards – of beauty, of behavior (men and women, and so when Emma breaks from those standards, she is cast down.
I like the simplicity of it because despite it being very minimal, the image says enough, says so much about what is going on in this book. It definitely catches your eye and it gives you a pretty clear picture of what will happen in this book.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
This book was so hard to read. Not only is it difficult to digest the actual traumatic event that occurs in this book, it’s also difficult to digest the aftermath. A lens has been placed over society’s standards here, and what you are shown is stark, haunting, and painful. To be a girl, a woman, in this world can be a dangerous thing on many levels. O’Neill is showing the ugly side of our modern world – where rape is a constant reality, where consent is not considered when discussing rape, where women are, for the most part, ones who are blamed for what happens to them. It’s a harsh but true look at the devastation that victim blaming, slut shaming, and double standards have on people.
I do not want to live in a world where what happens to Emma in this story is the norm. As O’Neill says in her afterword, this needs to be discussed, conversations need to be had about consent, our treatment of rape needs to change. I cannot recommend this book enough, not just to teenagers, but also to adults. There are so many people who would benefit from reading this book and though it is a hard thing to discuss, to read, it is a reality that should not be ignored.
Some Powerful Quotes:
I make my mind go blank. I am not that girl anymore. I am an It. I am a collection of doll parts, of pink flesh, of legs spread open for all to see.Emma, 9.0192
The word fills the room, until there’s nothing left, and all I can breathe is that word (rape) and all I can hear is that word (rape) and all I can smell is that word (rape) and all I can taste is that word (rape).Emma, p. 155
“Sean is a good guy, I just want Emma to be, like, totally sure.” She wrapped her arm around my shoulder. (I didn’t want to be touched.) “You know I’m on your side, right? I was just asking if it was, like, rape rape” (I don’t want to hear that word.)Ali, to Emma, p. 229
When did we all become fluent in this language that none of us wanted to learn?Emma, p. 232
The men have said that you agreed, that you consented. They say that it was your idea. They say that you wanted it. But I can’t remember. How can they prove I gave consent? How can they prove I didn’t? Did you know the rate of conviction for rape is only one percent in this country? What’s the point then?Emma, imagining what she’ll be asked on trial, p. 295
“They’re good boys, really. This all just got out of hand.” And I look at her, and I look again, and she doesn’t even realize what she has said.Emma’s mom, Emma’s thoughts after, p. 301
I wait for my mother to deny it. I wait for her to tell him not to be stupid. I wait for her to tell him “Of course I haven’t given up on Emma, I love her, we want to take care of her.
I wait and I wait.
I will wait forever.Emma, p. 303
Open discussion below!
This book is a heavy one, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. If you’ve read it, what did you think? If you haven’t, has this review prompted you to give it a try? Let’s talk about it in the comments!
Thank you so much for reading!