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Caroline O'Donoghue on her book 'The Rachel Incident'

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Cork City, Ireland, 2009. Rachel is a student working in a bookshop when a guy named James comes up to her and says...

CAROLINE O'DONOGHUE: (Reading) Someone here has scabies. He said, like he was Poirot investigating a country house blighted by murder. What? I said, the shock of the sentence shattering the glassy reserve that I had cultivated as part of my persona - the persona broadly known as girl who works in bookshop. And what are scabies? They're like a parasite, he said. Like worms? No. Worms are inside. Scabies are outside. Have you ever had worms?

PARKS: And so begins their best friendship. Rachel and James move into a crappy apartment where they drink cheap wine and watch TV in bed, and their lives slowly intertwine. "The Rachel Incident" is a book about friendship, romance and coming of age at a specific time in history. The author, Caroline O'Donohue, joins me now.

O'DONOGHUE: Hi, Miles. Lovely to speak with you.

PARKS: It's great to have you. So at the center of this book are Rachel and James. Will you just tell us a little bit about their friendship?

O'DONOGHUE: I often think of their friendship as being, you know, that bit in an old movie where a soldier, you know, in a bar, he kind of nudges his buddy and says, I'm going to marry that girl someday. And the specifics of them is that Rachel is a - she's a 20-year-old sort of girl who's living in Cork City, a place where she grew up, and has that specific thing - I don't know if you know it - of, like, going to university in the same town that you grew up in. And so by the age of 20...

PARKS: Oh, I know it very, very well.

O'DONOGHUE: (Laughter) Where did you go?

PARKS: I went to school down in Tampa, Fla. But that's a different story.

O'DONOGHUE: (Laughter).

PARKS: But it's very familiar to me.

O'DONOGHUE: Yes. Yes. And she's kind of from an upper-middle-class background. But because of the Irish economic recession in 2008, her parents have been absolutely devastated by that. And so she's kind of well brought up, but broke. And James, meanwhile, he has a very what I would call a "Angela's Ashes" background but is very kind of effervescent and charismatic and fun and also closeted. Many things happen. I sort of - I worry sometimes I talk so much about their friendship that I'm afraid people will think it's a novel where nothing happens, but a lot happens. It's just hard to discuss.

PARKS: A lot happens in this book. I want to ask about a couple of the other characters in the book. There is Rachel's college professor who then begins kind of dating James. And the college professor has a wife who then Rachel begins working for. And Rachel has this other boyfriend who moves into her life who kind of becomes a constant throughout the book. All of these characters are older than Rachel, who are kind of adults. But I wondered, do you feel like they have it figured out more than she does?

O'DONOGHUE: I think one of the things that the novel is about really is that, like, she is looking to everybody to be formed by them. You know, she's obsessed with - she's so obsessed with what her boyfriend says about her when she's not around that she can't really concentrate on her boyfriend in the moment (laughter) - you know? - like that kind of thing. And the Burns are an incredible figures in her life. And I think we all have that - don't we? - where the first people we meet who are our friends, who are - we almost think of as being in our parents' generation, but they're our friends, and how exciting that is and how we will take anything they say as being the wisest and most correct thing. And then there comes a point where, like, everything falls apart, and she has to dictate to them, OK, here's what's going to happen now. And she realizes how vulnerable everyone around her actually is.

PARKS: Abortion becomes a big theme of this book as well. Can you talk a little bit about why that was something you wanted to write about?

O'DONOGHUE: So for anyone who doesn't know, abortion access was completely illegal in Ireland until 2018, when the Eighth Amendment was repealed in our constitution. And gay sex acts were illegal in our Constitution until the '90s. The last Magdalene Laundry, which was a system for institutionalizing and incarcerating young mothers and young women who were having sex outside of marriage - the last one of those closed in 1986. And so there's all these like horrible, horrible tiara of Irish repression. For me, the crown jewel of that is the fact that if you were an Irish woman growing up of my generation or any generation beforehand, you could not think about your sex life without also thinking about the worst consequence of your sex life and how that divorces you from sensuality and from instinct and from trusting people and from fun.

PARKS: One of my favorite sentences in the book is this line where Rachel says she feels like she was developing at a kind of crossroads of female messaging, where she was feeling all of these physical desires while at the same time, pop stars were being shamed. That was kind of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears time. She was just taking in all of these contradictory messages about what it meant to be a woman.

O'DONOGHUE: Yeah. At the beginning of the book, she has this boyfriend. They split up quite quickly 'cause there's no room for him in her and James' love affair. And she starts going out all the time. And she's always, you know, getting drunk. And she's always, you know, having a lovely kiss with somebody in the back of a club. And then inevitably he walks her home. And then she would find herself feeling disgraced and like, how dare you assume you would come in and sleep with me? I'll slap you across the face like Katharine Hepburn and then walk inside and wonder why I did that - you know? - because ultimately, you know, it was very hard to know what to do, where - and I think people often ask me in interviews, why is it, do you think, that Irish femininity is so culturally prevalent right now? Why are there so many Irish creators, whether it's in film or TV and novels.

I do think that we grew up in this way where we had all the Western culture that, you know, everybody else had - the Paris Hilton and all the sex tapes. And - but we also - we were emerging from a society that was so, so sexually conservative. And it's almost like, you know, how, like, every single horror movie in the 1950s was about aliens because everybody was afraid of communism. Irish women recounting their lives, it's almost like a millennial horror story of like, this is how it feels. This is how contradictory it actually feels to be a woman. But for Irish women, it's far more literal and on the surface, if you know what I mean.

PARKS: You pick a very specific voice for Rachel. She's kind of recounting the events of her early 20s from her, I believe, like, early 30s, where she's got a little bit of distance from these events. And it seems to give her a sort of generosity...

O'DONOGHUE: Yeah.

PARKS: ...For all of the characters in this book. Can you talk about why you decided to write it in that way?

O'DONOGHUE: About halfway through the book, the events are coming thick, and fast and you're like, oh, my God, oh my - like, you know? And I realized that if you were living in the present tense with Rachel going through these events as they happened, it would be very depressing. I was like, I don't want to write that book. I wrote this book primarily to cheer myself up during the pandemic, and I want it to feel only joy, even though I was talking about tough things. And so doing it in the past tense, she looks back on herself, and it's - the attitude throughout the book is, you know, God, I was an idiot, but what a great pair of legs.

PARKS: (Laughter).

O'DONOGHUE: And I really wanted - because there's such a temptation to pulverize your younger self and to guilt your own young self for sleeping with the wrong people or doing the wrong things or saying the wrong things. And I want the reader themselves to be like, think of their own past and go, oh, God, what an idiot, but what a pair of legs.

PARKS: Caroline O'Donoghue. Her novel is "The Rachel Incident."

Caroline, congratulations, and thank you so much.

O'DONOGHUE: Thank you, Miles. It's been wonderful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MODEST MOUSE SONG, "SLEEPWALKING (COUPLES ONLY DANCE PROM NIGHT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.