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

Wickedly good fun, taut as a tightrope, Louise O’Neill’s Idol deals in doubles: two women, two timelines, two conflicting accounts of one night. Is it possible for both to be true at once?

In 2022, 40-year-old Samantha Miller has it all. What’s more, she has earned it – from her troubled teenage years, Sam has risen like a phoenix since launching her Gwyneth Paltrow-esque wellness brand Shakti. “She would never grow tired of… her girls, calling her name. It was all she would ever need to be happy.”

We meet Sam in the run-up to the release of her fourth book Chaste (“Sex is sacred and we have to honour it as the force that it is.”) Her essay about a formative sexual experience with female friend “L” has gone viral, and Sam feels invincible – but when her manager Jane receives an email from the friend, Lisa, accusing Sam of assault that night, the experience she remembers so tenderly seems irretrievably sullied. Amid the pain is confusion, too: “I don’t understand why she’d say something like this; it doesn’t make any sense.”

Chivvied by Jane (“Have you thought about how this might jeopardise the Shakti sale?”), Sam heads back for the first time in years to the small town in Connecticut where she grew up, to clear her name and reconnect with Lisa.

In the process, she encounters Josh – Lisa’s husband, Sam’s own first love, and a key player in the story that shattered their friendship. What happened that night? And was Sam’s childhood really as dysfunctional as she has made it sound since leaving home all those years ago?

O’Neill does a good job at undermining – and then reinvigorating – the reader’s confidence in Sam until the very last page, and the book is brimming with twists and turns.

Sam finds Lisa brittle and wary, resistant to her attempts to reconnect. Yet she has built her dream house in the mirror image of Sam’s childhood home and named her daughters Martha and Maya – “Her baby names; she’d told Lisa that a million times when they were teenagers,” thinks Sam on meeting the twins. The pair teeter on the brink of rekindling their historic intimacy.

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

Idol isn’t interested in black and white, baddies and goodies, and O’Neill resists the urge to tie up her zeitgeisty romp with anything so trite as a moral. But Sam’s struggle to keep her public persona intact while she unravels privately is still a searing look at sex and power, celebrity and delusion – and the stories we tell ourselves in order to find our place in the world.

Idolby Louise O’Neill, is pubished by Bantam Press at £14.99

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