The Rachel Incident

The Rachel Incident

by Caroline O'Donoghue
The Rachel Incident

The Rachel Incident

by Caroline O'Donoghue


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Notes From Your Bookseller

This funny, incisive, and poignant debut novel about the relationships formed during that turbulent, transitory time in one's early twenties, and how they continue to echo throughout our lives is perfect for fans of Sally Rooney and Naoise Dolan.

A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR A USA TODAY BESTSELLER A brilliantly funny novel about friends, lovers, Ireland in chaos, and a young woman desperately trying to manage all three “O'Donoghue deepens the familiar coming-of-age premise with riveting moral complications." —People

"If you’ve ever been unsure what to do with your degree in English; if you’ve ever wondered when the rug-buying part of your life will start...if you’ve ever loved the wrong person, or the right person at the wrong time…In short, if you’ve ever been young, you will love The Rachel Incident like I did.” —Gabrielle Zevin, New York Times best-selling author of Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

Rachel is a student working at a bookstore when she meets James, and it’s love at first sight. Effervescent and insistently heterosexual, James soon invites Rachel to be his roommate and the two begin a friendship that changes the course of both their lives forever.  Together, they run riot through the streets of Cork city, trying to maintain a bohemian existence while the threat of the financial crash looms before them.

When Rachel falls in love with her married professor, Dr. Fred Byrne, James helps her devise a reading at their local bookstore, with the goal that she might seduce him afterwards. But Fred has other desires. So begins a series of secrets and compromises that intertwine the fates of James, Rachel, Fred, and Fred’s glamorous, well-connected, bourgeois wife. Aching with unrequited love, shot through with delicious, sparkling humor, The Rachel Incident is a triumph.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593535707
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/27/2023
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 6,135
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

CAROLINE O'DONOGHUE is the New York Times best-selling author of All Our Hidden Gifts, her YA debut fantasy, which has been published in more than twenty territories around the world. She has written for The Times and The Guardian, and is the host of an award-winning podcast, Sentimental Garbage. She was born in Ireland and lives in London. The Rachel Incident is her first adult novel to be published in the U.S.

Read an Excerpt


I only ever really talk about Dr. Byrne with James Devlin, and so I always assumed that, were he to ever come back into my life, it would be through him.

I was wrong. He came via the Toy Show.

The Late Late Toy Show is an annual Irish TV event whereby small children review the years best toys and advise other children what to put on their Santa lists. Its a big deal if you're a child in Ireland, and a bigger deal if you're an Irish adult who lives abroad. Its a hard thing to explain to outsiders. This, in itself, is part of the appeal. Either you get it or you dont. You're one of us or you're not. Perhaps its because so many people claim Irishness that we keep putting our private jokes on higher and higher shelves, so you have to ask a member of staff to get them down for you.

All over the world there are group screenings where Irish adults cheer for five-year-olds testing out Polly Pockets on live TV. I am an editor at The Hibernian Post, a newspaper for the Irish in Britain. It is my job to write about ex-pat movements, and therefore it is my job to write about the Toy Show.

Are you sure? Angela says. I don't want to send you out in the cold, all the way into Soho, three weeks before Christmas.

It's fine, I say, wrapping a long scarf up to my chin, smothering myself briefly in the process.

I don't want to sound like that colleague, she says. But in your current condition . . .

I'm grand, honestly. I rub at the dome of my stomach, having just recently settled into a period of relative calm in my pregnancy. The rough nausea and perilous uncertainty of the early months had made me feel like I was in the first stages of a long whaling voyage. I had, after all, miscarried before. But by month seven, I have reached a kind of plaintive ocean madness. I cannot imagine land. As far as I am concerned, I am going to be pregnant for ever.

I make my way to the Soho bar that has, for one night only, become a haven for the homesick. I used to come to a lot of these ex-pat nights out, arranged around referendums and demands for change. I cared a lot. I was invested. I was also making great money. English papers were running a lot of features on the Irish fight for abortion, and I was one of the people they commissioned to write them. I interviewed campaigners, people from Marie Stopes, people who had lost daughters or wives to complicated childbirth and a doctor that refused to act on behalf of the mother. It was a blip of a moment, where being an Irish journalist in England meant something. I went to protests and ended up at parties afterwards. My contact list heaved with people who I would drunkenly promise something to, some form of coverage that was utterly not in my jurisdiction to provide.

My phone still clings to them now, four years and an iPhone upgrade later. CLARA REPEAL, SIOBHAN REPEAL, ASHLING REPEAL, DONNACHA REPEAL. Strangers to each other, but briefly connected to a family tree of people who all wanted the same thing, and, now that we have it, have almost nothing to connect them at all.

We are glad to have abortion and gay marriage but we are lonely for nights like this.

There are no seats, and in my current bout of ocean madness, I forget that I now have a right to a chair. A man around my own age, happily settled with a gang of friends, offers me his.

I dont want to break up your circle. The group, so vivid in their enjoyment of the evening, strike me as mostly gay. Out of courtesy to the gay social gods, I must at least pretend to resist being the intruding straight female. I am, obviously, sweating to get involved.

He shakes his head, and guides me, gently, into his seat. No worries, missis, no worries, he says, the Dublin accent pranging through. What would we be like, leaving a pregnant lady to stand at Christmas?

What would the baby Jesus think? says another, and because were all now sitting so closely, I have no choice but to become an honorary member of the gang. Im grateful for it. They make me feel large and special, like Mary hovering before the Children of Fatima.

The first ad break begins, and I feel a tap on my leg. Sorry, he says. Hes one of the men from the other side of the circle, who I havent talked to yet. Can I just ask

I miss what he says next. The host of the evening hits mute on the TV screen and turns up the speaker. Cest La Vie by B*Witched plays, the volume way too loud, shocking everyone briefly out of their seats. The host quickly turns it down, putting his hands up, in a sorry, guys gesture.

I turn my attention back to the boy.

... do you by any chance know what's going on with him? he says, finishing a sentence that I did not hear.

Maybe it's because I'm among gay men, or because I'm asked about my best friend so often. Maybe it's pregnancy brain. But I really thought he was asking about James Devlin. This is the precise setting where I would normally be asked about James. He occupies a funny intersection on the fame Venn diagram: Irish famous, gay famous, social media famous, but not actually famous. Famous enough that, if he were here tonight, he would be stopped for pictures, but not autographs. Famous enough that, when he's one of five writers on a film, one of the papers back home will run a headline that says, Hollywood movie penned by Cork local.

New York, I say proudly. Hes doing really well, you know, and not just on the Instagram videos. He writes for one of the talk shows.

He looks blankly back at me, and so I name the talk show. Another empty look.

He furrows his brow. You were in his third-year seminar group, werent you? he says. Dr. Byrne? Victorian Lit?

Dr. Byrne, I repeat, and for a second, my brain disconnects. Like a power cut. A thousand lights in an apartment building switching off at once.

You were in UCC with me, I'm pretty sure? he says slowly. You were in my group with him. Fred Byrne's class.

Yes, I reply, and despite my shock at hearing the name, I'm already conscious of the PR message my face is sending. I smooth my expression, but its too late. I need to explain something to this stranger, but where would I start? How could you understand the year in Shandon Street unless you were there, with us, living it?

Listen, I didnt mean to ... he says, realising that he has somehow put a foot wrong, but with no clue where or how to retrieve it. I just thought, you know, you were one of his favourites, or it seemed like you were, and maybe you knew.

Knew what? I say. How can I subtly inform this stranger that I was not, despite popular myth around Cork at the time, having sex with Dr. Byrne?

He's in a coma, he says, dropping the information so he can run quickly away from it. He got some crazy brain illness, and now he's in a coma.

Being this pregnant makes me feel my body in layerscrust, mantle, core and all of it rumbles at once when I think about Dr. Byrne. Big, strange Dr. Byrne, lover of French wine and fancy little cakes. The Portuguese tarts he brought us, still warm from the English Market. That deep yellow taste, the freckles of blackened sugar on the top.

The music pours out of the speaker to inform us that the ad break has ended, and the Toy Show comes back on, and a little boy from Wicklow rides his bike around in a circle.

I need to call James.


Its funny that James and I turned out to be such great friends, considering that for the first two weeks of our friendship he thought I was someone else entirely.

I remember our first meeting like its a scene from a movie about someone else. It was a Thursday in November, and I was standing behind the counter at OConnor Books. This was 2009. It was my final year at University, and there were twenty-nine days until Christmas. Our manager Ben was already worried that it would be a disappointing season, and was always walking around saying things about the industry. He talked about the book industry as if it were a dragon that was chained in the basement, and would tear us limb from limb at any moment. He spoke about that years spate of stocking-filler books Dawn French and Julie Walters had competing memoirs out, I believe as if they were charred corpses that we were flinging into the dragons throat to keep it sated.

This will keep the industry going, Ben said, with almost touching sincerity. He had more faith in the memories of character actresses than I imagine either Julie Walters or Dawn French had when writing them down. I lifted another stack out of the stockroom, the book tower starting at my waist and sitting under my chin.

James Devlin had started as a Christmas temp the Thursday before, which I had taken as time off so I could finish my end-of-year essays for college. James had spent his first shift with Sabrina. Later, he would say that he was so inundated with new faces and names on his first shift that they were a blur, and when I said that was bullshit, he threw his hands up and said straight women all looked the same to him.

The first shift with Sabrina must have been fun puzzling, considering how little craic Sabrina was generally understood to be because when James opened the wooden flap to the counter area, he was full of conspiracy.

Someone here has scabies, he said, and they left the lotion in the jacks.

It feels strange now, setting that first conversation down like this, because it does nothing to communicate how James was. How utterly charming this opener was to me. Someone here has scabies. He said it like he was Poirot investigating a country house blighted by murder. Like someone who saw the inherent prejudices of our polite society and was prepared to unveil it. The second part of the sentence was a whole different thing: and they left the lotion in the jacks. He was Cork county, Fermoy to be exact, which was strictly country to me. But he had grown up in the UK all over it, I would later learn and so his voice had a peculiar quality that was hard to place. I was born in Douglas, a suburban little village that was two miles south of the city centre, and I was still living there.

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.

Like worms?

Worms are inside. Scabies are outside. Have you ever had worms before?


Even when you were a kid?

I thought about it. Ringworm. Is that the same?

How did you get that?

He was genuinely interested. It made me go digging in memories that I had not remembered before, and I felt as if I had discovered a new part of the ocean floor. We had a cat, a stray. I think I got it from him?

Funny how all pets were strays in the nineties, he said. He was signing into the till, punching in a six-digit number. You just got your dog from the middle of the road, back then.

I had a certain expectation, when I started at the bookshop, about how conversations should go inside one of them. Conversations would be about books, I thought. But we rarely talked about reading. The reading taste among staff was extremely diverse, but rather than stimulating lively debate about literature, this meant we just sat quietly with our books in the staff room. Ben liked his Joyce. Sabrina loved Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams and all those other sorts of writers where you were never sure whether they were joking or not. There were other members of staff who were variously fascinated by pop psychology, Freakonomics, local history, and the Simon's Cat franchise, but I could never find common ground with them either.

I was usually reading ... well, novels. Mainly older ones. Books that were rancidly popular in the mid twentieth century and therefore approved by the cultural establishment, but were forgotten enough by my contemporaries to make me feel special. I liked dead women talking glibly about society. I liked long paragraphs about rationing and sexual awakenings in France. Until I started working at the bookshop I had considered myself quite well read.

I was eager to not ask James about reading, because I had lost too many prospective friendships to this line of questioning already. I wanted to ask him something real, or what my twenty-year-old brain considered to be real. I wanted something as good as his scabies thing.

There was no time however, because at that moment a dozen customers arrived, and we rang up their purchases side by side. I had done this hundreds of times by now: standing next to a colleague for hours, working the till, making occasional small talk between customers. I had always felt entirely on my own planet. It sounds silly to say this, or like I'm assigning huge emotions to this one late shift long after the fact, but this felt different. It felt warm, like the occasional silences on road trips with dear friends.

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