Idol by Louise O’Neill is a sharp look at sex, power and celebrity

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Great fun, tight as a wire, Louise O’Neill’s Idol Business doubles: two women, two timelines, two conflicting accounts in one night. Can both be true at the same time?

In 2022, 40-year-old Samantha Miller has it all. Plus, she deserves it — from her troubled teenage years, Sam has risen like a phoenix since launching her Gwyneth Paltrow-esque wellness brand, Shakti. “She would never tire of… her girls calling her name. It was everything she would ever need to be happy.”

We meet Sam ahead of the release of her fourth book Chaste (“Sex is sacred and we must honor it for the power it is.”) Her essay about a formative sexual experience with friend “L” went viral, and Sam feels invincible — but when her manager, Jane, emails Received from the friend Lisa, who accused Sam of assault that night, the experience she remembers so fondly seems irretrievably tainted. Amidst the pain, there is also confusion: “I don’t understand why she says something like that; it makes no sense.”

Snapped at by Jane (“Have you considered how this might jeopardize Shakti sales?”), Sam returns to the small Connecticut town where she grew up for the first time in years to clear her name and herself again connect with Lisa.

Along the way, she meets Josh – Lisa’s husband, Sam’s own first love, and a pivotal character in the story who shattered their friendship. What happened that night? And was Sam’s childhood really as dysfunctional as it sounds since she left home all those years ago?

O’Neill does a good job of eroding – and then rekindling – the reader’s trust in Sam to the very last page, and the book is full of twists and turns.

Sam finds Lisa coy and suspicious, resistant to her attempts to reconnect. Still, she’s built her dream home in the mirror image of Sam’s childhood home, naming her daughters Martha and Maya — “Your baby names; she had said that to Lisa many times when they were teenagers,” Sam reflects on meeting the twins. The couple is on the verge of rekindling their historic intimacy.

Memory is less objective than we like to think. Affected by emotion and distorted over time, even—or especially—our most intense experiences become distorted. “It seems like there’s your truth and my truth and nothing in between,” Lisa tells Sam. But when two people can remember a night so differently, “Then how can anything be true? How do you know what’s real?”

Idol uninterested in black and white, bad guys and good guys, O’Neill resists the urge to associate her contemporary romp with something as mundane as morality. But Sam’s struggle to keep her public persona intact while unraveling in private is still a keen look at sex and power, celebrity and insanity — and the stories we tell ourselves to find our place in the world.

IDolby Louise O’Neill, is published by Bantam Press for £14.99

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