“Althea & Oliver” by Cristina Moracho
What if you live for the moment when life goes off the rails—and then one day there’s no one left to help you get it back on track?
Althea Carter and Oliver McKinley have been best friends since they were six; she’s the fist-fighting instigator to his peacemaker, the artist whose vision balances his scientific bent. Now, as their junior year of high school comes to a close, Althea has begun to want something more than just best-friendship. Oliver, for his part, simply wants life to go back to normal, but when he wakes up one morning with no memory of the past three weeks, he can’t deny any longer that something is seriously wrong with him. And then Althea makes the worst bad decision ever, and her relationship with Oliver is shattered. He leaves town for a clinical study in New York, resolving to repair whatever is broken in his brain, while she gets into her battered Camry and drives up the coast after him, determined to make up for what she’s done.
Their journey will take them from the rooftops, keg parties, and all-ages shows of their North Carolina hometown to the pool halls, punk houses, and hospitals of New York City before they once more stand together and face their chances. Set in the DIY, mix tape, and zine culture of the mid-1990s, Cristina Moracho’s whip-smart debut is an achingly real story about identity, illness, and love—and why bad decisions sometimes feel so good.
“Althea & Oliver” is not what Diana and I call a bubble-gum, PG romance. I can see why it has been compared to “Eleanor & Park” (and it’s way beyond the obvious “girl’s name, ampersand, boy’s name” title): it’s about a guy and a girl who need each other, complete each other, and rely on each other more than any one else could ever know. They bond over pop culture (it’s set in the mid ’90s), and they have complicated family lives. Like “E&P,” this is hard to put down, it’s occasionally intense and upsetting, and it’s not your typical “friends to more” love story.
But while Althea and Oliver love each other, they aren’t quite in love like Eleanor and Park. They are inseparable lifelong best friends, but as far as romance goes, Althea is ready to jump into her blossoming desire, while Oliver is hesitant to change the most important relationship of his life. So let me call this what it is — an unrequited love story full of angst, self discovery, and a rare sleeping disorder that you’ve probably heard of but no little about.
Although “Althea & Oliver” is set in the ’90s, Moracho doesn’t overwhelm the story with too many references to the time period. In fact, I wish there had been a few more, since that’s when I was in college in New York (where the second half of the book takes place).
Cristina Moracho’s writing is beautiful: precise, evocative, authentic. She doesn’t shy away from sex, substance use, and illness, so the book could be considered a “tough issues” story, but it was also a touching relationship drama and a realistic look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of having only one person you truly trust and want to be with every day.
I highly recommend “Althea & Oliver” to fans of unconventional, emotional, and occasionally heartbreaking contemporaries.
Lying down, he pats his chest in invitation. She takes her place, and he wraps his arms around her and strokes what’s left of her hair. “It’s like we’re two sides of the same coin, and I don’t know which side I’m on.” Althea doesn’t say anything. “I remember those days, too,” he whispers.
This house only holds one mystery that interests her, and she’s alone for barely fifteen minutes before she’s drawn to it.
It had come out of nowhere, this unsettling, inexplicable thing, and every time Oliver went to a new doctor and told the story all over again, Althea thought guiltily of the part he didn’t know — that it was when she realized she wanted him that he had first gotten sick.