Blurb from Goodreads
It’s September and the university halls are buzzing with fresh faces and excitement for the year ahead. Not for Melina Xydakis, new to Scotland, new to the university, and new to the situation of being a child of divorce. For the past three years in Greece, Melina has had to watch her parents struggle to save their marriage. Now she’s here for a fresh start, though the prospect of dealing with the unfamiliar university environment and finding new friends fills her with dread. She decides to focus her nerves in a diary, filling the pages with her experiences. An extrovert she is not.
Not like Miranda, the beautiful and lively girl she meets in the same residence hall, or Liz, her next-door neighbour who is wild and outspoken. Nor too like Sean. For Melina, there is nobody like Sean, whom she notices in the first few days of term. And although Sean and Miranda get together, Melina’s romantic heart yearns for him to notice her, even when Miranda warns her his light surface hides dark depths. As those closest to her play out their own dramas, except for Kevin, a new friend, who remains steadfast through it all, Melina is consumed with finding out Sean’s secret. But will it ruin everything?
Have you ever disliked a book but also felt compelled to keep reading? I have a very strange dichotomy of feelings about The University Student. I utterly loathed the main character… but still kept reading to see if she’d improve somehow??
Let me try to break this down…
The University Student is written in the format of diary entries which main character Melina uses to analyse every detail about her life throughout her first year at university in Scotland. Ordinarily I’m quite a fan of this narrative style but in this instance I found Melina’s voice to be incredibly passive early on in the novel and I struggled to keep interest in her story. At one point I was even contemplating not finishing the book.
However I persisted and I’m pleased to say that the writing tightened up and Melina found her voice… Unfortunately this voice did not make her an altogether likeable character.
With a diary style narrative it does give the reader great insight into the inner workings of the character’s mindset, thought processes, beliefs etc. And this can truly result in an authentic feeling character that basically exposes their soul for us, warts and all, on the page.
But sadly in this instance Melina had a great many warts that she showed off for us which made me seriously dislike huge aspects of the reading experience.
There is a balance that needs to be struck when an author is writing a character that has so many negative viewpoints of other people. It’s quite a tricky thing to get right because we all know that as human beings we can have many irrational and petty viewpoints about other people that we quietly keep to ourselves but still think these thoughts on a frequent basis.
In “The University Student” Melina really showed a dislike towards other female characters. She saw them as threats and love rivals, and frequently wrote things that were unpleasant about her female friends. And while I appreciate that it is not an unusual occurrence for women to pit themselves against each other in an attempt to attract a man, I felt that in this novel it was overdone.
Melina wrote negatively about each of her female friends; Melinda, Emma, and even about Liz. There just seemed to be no sense from her that women could ever actually be true friends with no hidden agendas.
What I needed was a little more nuance to these friendships. Some more light and shade with regards to how Melina felt about them. Even though this book was written in a diary style and therefore only ever from Melina’s viewpoint, I just wanted her to note a few occasions where there was a mutual benefit to her female friendships.
I guess I’m just tired of books featuring young adult female characters always seemingly distrust each other. It would have been okay to have one frenemy style female friend with Miranda perhaps (she was the main love rival for Sean’s affections) but it became too much when Emma was thrown in the mix in that regard, and then also having Melina not speak fondly of Liz who truly was a good friend to her. Instead it was just constant slut shaming which is a trope that needs to end.
But the thing that irritated me the most about this book was the disability representation. It is high time that society at large learns that the word ‘handicapped’ is not an appropriate descriptor for a person with a disability. It is an offensive and outdated descriptor which should no longer be used. Describing the character of Kevin as ‘handicapped’ was not integral to the storyline (e.g. to show ignorance, prejudice etc.) and therefore there is no excuse for its appearance in this novel. It should have been removed during the editing process.
I also did not like how Melina described Kevin purely in terms of his disability. As a reader we were never truly given insight to the type of personality he had but instead he was crafted to *inspire* Melina to value life, talk about what ‘real problems’ are etc. He was basically a white knight who was ever patient, ever kind etc etc. This is ableist. People with a disability are not there to inspire the able bodied to live their lives better. They should not be expected to be quiet martyrs/paradigms of virtue who stoically accept their lot in life. In a novel where every other of Melina’s friends had both light and shade to their personalities, it was incredibly frustrating to me to read a character with a disability who was just politely bland.
Word of the wise, Melina’s idea of love and romance is incredibly superficial and toxic which can make for an exceptionally frustrating reading experience throughout the read because as a reader you will want to scream at her to see sense.
But yet, even with all of these issues, I still kept reading the novel.
I guess I wanted to see Melina grow up. I wanted to see if she’d learn to value her female friends. I wanted to see if she’d see Kevin as more than just someone to inspire her but instead an authentic human being who isn’t always perfect. I wanted to see where her relationship with Sean would ultimately lead her.
And in some regards Melina learned a lot from her first year at university… but ultimately it wasn’t enough for me to want to rate this novel highly. I felt that there should have been clearer indicators of character growth with regards to her attitudes about her friends and life in general. I found the end of the novel to be too rushed, too melodramatic, and just lacking in any climactic moment that would make me feel rewarded as a reader. Ultimately, the book just left me feeling hollow.
As for my rating: even though I found the story to be somewhat compelling, I can’t bring myself to rate this more highly than one star because of the use of an offensive disability descriptor on more than one occasion in the novel.
Toxic romantic relationship
Implied physical abuse in a romantic relationship
*An e-copy was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley for honest review*
Published 28th October 2020, Matador