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Uncomfortable in the Best Way: A Review of Oola by Brittany Newell
By Erynn Porter
Oola by Brittany Newell is somehow about everything and nothing at the same time. There are so many ideas discussed in the book that the brain becomes overwhelmed. Art, culture, finding yourself, sexual and gender identity, the idea of never knowing the people closest to you, all packed into 250 pages of the novel.
The novel is in Leif’s point of view and becomes very uncomfortable to read his thought process. But Newell isn’t afraid to push that uncomfortable feeling to create dynamic pacing. Honestly, I can’t decide if Leif is a likable character or not, and Oola makes me not really care either way. In the beginning, Leif is lost and whiney, going from housesitting job to housesitting job. A well off son of New England WASPS, he tries to run from his privilege and pretend he doesn’t have it. He seems like a very typical pathetic white loner type but as the novel progresses you start to see many more sides to him. Maybe the most interesting thing about Leif is his gender and sexually fluidly, which the reader sees as the novel progresses.
When Leif meets Oola something dark unlocks inside of him. He becomes obsessed with Oola, sex, and the idea of being the only person needed in Oola’s life. Nothing is ever enough with Leif, he just wants more and more. The obsession seeps into the text from the very first page:
“It was three in the afternoon in late May; I was tired in that drawn-out way, nonsensical way, when your body assumes a vaguely erotic position no matter the task and despite your actual urges… She didn’t notice me. This is how it often was, she the show and I the crowd, but that day I was keenly aware of the fact that this was what she would be doing if I weren’t around.”
His obsession begins to take over his life, it starts with small things like watching her every move to he tallies the looks Oola would receive from other men on their travels and categorize it in a specific system. He tells her wants to write a novel where she is the main character. She laughs him off and says sure but not a lot of writing gets done. Instead he focuses in on her even more. He begins to collection odd objects that she tosses:
“… I did nothing more than pick her cigarette butts out of the abalone-shell ashtray I’d filched from the porch. I turned them in my hands, like pearls still gritty from the surf. I tried to smoke a few, reduced to an uncool teen as I puffed on chemical aggregates and leftover spit. Some were dabbed with bits of lipstick, which I pressed to my lips with especial conviction.” (78)
Eventually Oola doesn’t like the hyper focus, she starts asking questions about the kind of book that Leif is going to write. She tells him, “I don’t know what your book’s like, but… I can’t be your thing, OK?” (133) Leif doesn’t understand why she is pulling away, so he tries to relate to her harder. She stops talking about herself, instead she talks about aliens like to watch her. In fact, she itches all the time from their stares. Leif tries to understand but the more confusing it becomes. Eventually she leaves him, just gets up and walks away. He’s not sure where she goes and why she leaves.
Leaving triggers something inside of Leif and soon he starts to wear her clothes, like her sweatshirt. At first he says it’s because he misses her. Then he wears her dresses, dyes his hair, and wears her leftover makeup. He wants to now become Oola. He finds her old diary and reads about her old love, tracks him down, and almost has sex with him. Eventually he just likes the clothes and being a woman, it makes Leif feel good.
In the end, he finds Oola in a facility where she is wasting away. She is nothing like how Leif remembers her. Oola is horrified when she sees Leif, she recognizes her clothes. Leif brags about being with her old love, and she freaks out. She goes on and on about aliens and how they are inside her. It’s a tragic ending, where neither of them recognize each other. Oola breaks his heart when she tells him that she doesn’t know if she loved him. Instead she asks him to tell her if she did. Their visit ends with him beating her with the bouquet that he bought her.
Newell’s novel is interesting but at the times the reader can get lost inside the chaos, we lose the thread of conversation between Leif and Oola. It could be that Leif is an unreliable narrator, but he is so focused on her that seems unlikely. Part of the problem is that Oola herself isn’t fully fleshed out. She doesn’t not give herself over to Leif so there are too many missing pieces he can’t put together. When she starts talking about aliens is when I got lost, I didn’t see that coming. Maybe Leif’s POV hid them on purpose but it felt like reading another book.
Overall, Oola by Brittany Newell is a fascinating look at what happens when lost souls try to find themselves in each other.