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Thursday, June 14, 2018

'My Oxford Year' by Julia Whelan


From the BLURB:

Set amidst the breathtaking beauty of Oxford, this sparkling debut novel tells the unforgettable story about a determined young woman eager to make her mark in the world and the handsome man who introduces her to an incredible love that will irrevocably alter her future—perfect for fans of JoJo Moyes and Nicholas Sparks.
American Ella Durran has had the same plan for her life since she was thirteen: Study at Oxford. At 24, she’s finally made it to England on a Rhodes Scholarship when she’s offered an unbelievable position in a rising political star’s presidential campaign. With the promise that she’ll work remotely and return to DC at the end of her Oxford year, she’s free to enjoy her Once in a Lifetime Experience. That is, until a smart-mouthed local who is too quick with his tongue and his car ruins her shirt and her first day.
When Ella discovers that her English literature course will be taught by none other than that same local, Jamie Davenport, she thinks for the first time that Oxford might not be all she’s envisioned. But a late-night drink reveals a connection she wasn’t anticipating finding and what begins as a casual fling soon develops into something much more when Ella learns Jamie has a life-changing secret.
Immediately, Ella is faced with a seemingly impossible decision: turn her back on the man she’s falling in love with to follow her political dreams or be there for him during a trial neither are truly prepared for. As the end of her year in Oxford rapidly approaches, Ella must decide if the dreams she’s always wanted are the same ones she’s now yearning for.

Okay, so - something about this book that I was not aware of until I read the author's letter at the back is ... 'My Oxford Year' is actually a novel adaptation of a film screenplay already in development with Temple Hill Entertainment, and *that* screenplay by Allison Burnett is the original source material. Whelan's is effectively a novelisation of a film, even though the film hasn't come out yet.

And, yes, I am very confused. Whelan goes into it a bit more in this Hello Giggles interview. 

It's even more confusing since it's not entirely clear if the film is technically still in-development? Sam Heughan (of 'Outlander' infamy) and Melissa Benoist ('Supergirl') were originally announced to star way back in 2015, but now there's really not a lot of information about the production, and it certainly seems like Sam and Melissa have dropped out - which, while disappointing for Heughan fans (who'd have gotten a kick out of him in this contemporary love story playing a character also called Jamie) is not that surprising and pretty typical for the fluctuations of Hollywood productions. BUT - it is a little odd that the novelisation of the film exists when it *kinda* feels like the film has stalled? Is ... is it still even a novelisation then, or just a novel? Again - more info on the murkiness of the film's fate is here at Fansided

Either way - what is clear is why Julia Whelan was tapped to write this book. She was an accomplished actress in her childhood and teens, even starring on a personal favourite TV series 'Once & Again' - before focusing on her education, and even studying abroad at Oxford. She was the perfect candidate to adapt a novel of this story about a young American woman called Ella, who is accepted into University of Oxford's Rhodes Trust - to study classic literature (with a focus on the romantics, naturally) 

On her first night in Oxford, while on a search for the perfect fish n' chips - she literally bumps into a suave and sexy Oxonian who splatters her in condiments and then tries to hit on her. Much to Ella's chagrin, the same sexy Oxonian is revealed the next day to be her new stand-in tutor ... the infinitely handsome Jamie Davenport, who comes with a fair amount of warning for a heartbreak reputation. 

From there we get a nice unfolding romance, of Ella being so sure she knows Jamie and his type - a real Romeo with a 'three date rule', and there are some epic scenes of chemistry between the two, while they debate prose and purpose of classic literature. And yes, eventually they fall into bed and decide to start a casual fling - casual, also because awkwardly wedged into the story is the fact that Ella is an up-and-coming politico back home, who has been offered to work remotely on a campaign for a congresswoman who could take out the next election. She only has one year in Oxford, so as to get home and being her new political position in Washington. 

I will say that after the initial *brilliant* slow-burn build-up of these two, who go from animosity to curiosity and were setting up such a sweet 'enemies to lovers' type trope, we suddenly get one clunky chapter written in Ella's third-person in which she whizzes through the last six-weeks of their intensely sexual relationship. It's literally a summary chapter where you can feel the pages flying off a calendar - just to rush us through six-weeks of them together. It felt very clunky and unsatisfying, but before I even had time to ruminate on the awkwardness - a bombshell hits the story. 

Now, this is the point that I don't think was really flagged in the blurb. Some people have pointed out that allusions to the book being for fans of Jojo Moyes ad Nicholas Sparks is hint enough, but ... the Sparks book being heavily hinted at is clearly 'A Walk To Remember' - which is from 1999. C'mon! And as for Jojo Moyes ... well, I wouldn't have classified her 'Me Before You' as a romance in the same way I feel 'My Oxford Year' has been (adding further confusion are endorsement quotes on the cover from romance author Jill Shalvis, and author Taylor Jenkins Reid). In any case - you can probably pick up what I'm putting down for you with these hints, but if you don't want to know more ... there be SPOILERS ahead. 

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Jamie is dying.

He has a rare blood disease that his brother died from a few years earlier, there is no cure - only chemotherapy and stem-cell research to combat symptoms and try to elongate his life.

And yes, if you're getting heavy 'Love Story' vibes - the 1970 "Love means never having to say you're sorry" - tearjerker then, you'd be correct. And actually, at the back of the book in her author-talk section, Whelan points out that much like 'My Oxford Year' - 'Love Story' was an adaptation of a book by Erich Segal.

So ... I did not see this sharp-turn coming. And I actually found the second-half of the book with this tragic element really uneven to the gorgeous, heated set-up of the romance in the beginning. It didn't exactly help that Jamie and Ella's evolving relationship is condensed to one summary chapter that recounts their sexual shenanigans. But overall, I don't feel like I ever truly acclimatized to the change in gears once Jamie's terminal illness was revealed.

It didn't feel like a romance to me anymore. I will say the end isn't *tragic* - it certainly does not follow in 'Love Story' footsteps, so very technically it could still be classified as a romance, but ... I wasn't convinced or as smitten by the end, as I was by the meet-cute and build-up of the beginning. 


All in all - if this film ever gets made, I'll definitely go see it. And Julia Whelan - already a dab hand at audiobook narration - is clearly also a talented writer and storyteller, and I am eager to read whatever else she puts out. 

But 'My Oxford Year' was a little too uneven for me. As confused as its genesis is - as a novelisation of a film that may never exist - so too does the storyline feel discombobulated and disjointed from its romantic ambitions. 

3.5/5

Friday, June 1, 2018

'Never Greener' by Ruth Jones


From the BLURB:

The past has a habit of tracking us down. And tripping us up.

When Kate was twenty-two, she had an intense and passionate affair with a married man, Callum, which ended in heartbreak. Kate thought she’d never get over it.

Seventeen years later, life has moved on – Kate, now a successful actress, is living in London, married to Matt and mother to little Tallulah. Meanwhile Callum and his wife Belinda are happy together, living in Edinburgh and watching their kids grow up. The past, it would seem, is well and truly behind them all.

But then Kate meets Callum again. And they are faced with a choice: to walk away from each other . . . or to risk finding out what might have been.

Second chances are a rare gift in life. But that doesn’t mean they should always be taken . . .

‘Never Greener’ is a 2018 UK women’s fiction novel by television writer, Ruth Jones. Jones wrote the award-winning television series ‘Gavin and Stacey’, in which she played the incorrigible Nessa, and ‘Stella’, in which she played the titular role. ‘Never Greener’ is Jones’s fiction debut, the first of two novels sold off in a 10-way bidding war amongst UK publishers back in 2016.

Right. So. Fair-warning; this novel is going to be a problem for some readers. If there’s one universally problematic ‘trope’ in books – particularly romance, women’s fiction, or “chick lit” generally – that is despised, it’s cheating. There are scores of reviews on Goodreads, for instance, and tags denouncing a work if there’s even a hint of infidelity and designed to give plenty of forewarning to fellow readers. Well – fair warning – there is cheating in ‘Never Greener’. It’s there in the blurb and I am telling you, it happens within the first three pages … in which we first meet Callum MacGregor and Kate Andrews in 1985, when she’s a 22-year-old aspiring actress and he’s a married 39-year-old school teacher with two children, and one on the way. Yup. The hero cheats on his (heavily) pregnant wife within about five hours of meeting the young heroine – when Callum is helping out at his brother’s pub, and Kate comes in to work her first shift of a summer job.

The book leaps between 2002 and 1985 – describing Kate and Callum’s intense love affair when it first began (then ended in heartbreak) and again when it’s rekindled in 2002 after a chance encounter, when Callum is now in his 60s (still happily married to his wife) and Kate is a famous British actress with a husband and five-year-old daughter.

And listen, the cheating wasn’t an issue for me. It’s not a NEVER-EVER trope that I avoid. It’s certainly not the reason I disliked this novel… which was really more just about it being a muddled mess in need of a firmer editorial hand for the writer, whom I admire greatly for her television work, but found severely lacking in the novel-writing stakes.

Let me explain …

On the face of it, this sounds like a novel to slog through of hard-to-like characters making harmful and hurtful decisions. But I was okay with that, going in. After all, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant ‘Fleabag TV series showed us the bitingly funny and complex humanity behind “toxic” people and their self-destruction. Something of ‘Never Greener’ also reminded me of British drama shows that had explored infidelity thoughtfully, and from many angles. ‘The 7.39, starring David Morrissey for instance, and a David Tennant episode of ‘True Lovethat’s about a happily married-man bumping into ‘the one that got away’ and getting a brief, second chance with her. Both of these were examples of solid storytelling that didn’t reduce people down to ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but looked at the myriad ways we choose love, and exist within the ramifications of our choices.

And maybe that could have been ‘Never Greener’ too. It was certainly what I wanted. A David Nicholls-esque novel about the very adult mistakes that make us and break us, and that damages other people along the way – told with comedic flair, well-balanced drama and tender heart, from the woman who perfected it in two highly-successful TV series about the wonderfully funny complexity of ordinary people. Heck, Jones even has an endorsement quote from Jojo Moyes who romped this romantic quandary in ‘The Last Letter From Your Lover’! Alas … ‘Never Greener’ is not the novel I thought it’d be. It’s not even a novel I looked very much.

I had such high hopes for this book, and I did come away disappointed … but I don’t think I had unreasonably high expectations. ‘Gavin & Stacey’ was a solid British comedy; ‘Stella’ was a more blue-collar drama, but no less charming. ‘Never Greener’ though reads like someone who is very green when it comes to novel-writing.

For starters –it’s not just Callum and Kate we’re following in this tale. No, there’s Kate’s husband Matt and his best friend Hetty and Callum’s wife Belinda too … And we get *everyone’s* perspective with the omniscient third-person narration. We can even start a chapter following one person’s interiority, but when they make a phone-call to someone else, we’ll then get that person’s side of things too. It’s baffling that these basic fiction foibles weren’t edited and corrected, because they are confusing and quite clearly a TV-writing holdover (especially from Jones’ ensemble-cast writing) that she needed to be rid of.

And the really frustrating thing is that while we follow everyone in narration, that doesn’t actually lead to us learning more about any them. Kate and Callum between them make some pretty radically awful decisions in the spur-of-the-moment, but we only read the action, not the internal reasoning. So one moment Callum is refusing an attempted kiss from Kate, then while she’s on the phone to someone, Callum suddenly has a hand on her leg that’s creeping up her skirt…  it’s completely baffling that these moments are communicated in such sparse sentences (actually very similar to the directions of a script?) but never interrogated by the characters themselves, in the moment. It reads very much ‘Slot A into Slot B’.

This also means that unlikeable characters who are unlikeable for their actions remain so. Kate comes across like an absolute psychopath, and Callum reads like a middle-aged cliché. That their relationship is concocted of mostly sexual encounters on the page also erodes our ability to care about them … when they meet, Kate is a 22-year-old aspiring actress and Callum is 39 with three children, a schoolteacher. You’d think they’d have little in common – and because we literally only read about them shagging (or talking about how they’ll rendezvous to shag again) that’s certainly how it comes across (which further lends Callum to the cliché). Because of this they are – frankly – utterly boring. It’s a hollow horniness, if you will – of two dull people who are single-minded only in their own selfish desires for carnality. And it’s not well written sex either. Ruth Jones said in an interview with the Guardian that “the sex scenes were quite a challenge” and I can only think they were too hard, so she never actually wrote them. Because they’re not scenes – but summaries of sexual encounters. And honestly, they read like vague porn descriptions along the lines of “and then they shagged for 36-hours straight!”. Even when Kate and a 60-something Callum rekindle their romance, it’s straight back into the 3-hour long bonk sessions that are terribly erotic and wonderful – really! – we’re told. Callum not flagging at all. Uh-huh.

It’s a tough slog to read this unfolding “romance”, and certainly not a story about the nuance of affection and affairs (Ruth Jones is no Liane Moriarty, or Mhairi McFarlane – for instance – both of whom regularly unearth the murkiness of lust and love). In fact, the entirely of Callum and Kate’s intense sexual chemistry (we’re told) seems to be down to the fact that Kate is really really ridiculously good looking. Just really stunningly gorgeous. And Callum is a fit ex-Rugby man. Again – because we really don’t read them relating to one another as people, just the (summarised) very brilliant sex they’re having, it’s a real stretch to believe their fiery passion …

Another drawback of Ruth Jones never actually developing these characters is that with Kate in particular, it’s clear she’s trying to hint at something deeper and more disturbing going on in her psyche … but without a more realised internal monologue, we’re completely in the dark. Sure, we get some interesting interactions of Kate on set feeling the pressure of always being “on” and aware of people scrutinising her, but it’s a fleeting exploration of what drives this character.

I think part of the overall ‘Never Greener’ problem is … it’s telling the wrong story. Kate and Callum are boring. They’re humping lunatics, frankly (who are having the very good sex)  – with no redeemable or credible qualities. The only real character of interest is Callum’s wife, Belinda. A Welsh stalwart, her background is far more interesting (even how she and Callum first met, briefly hints at a more realised heroine than all of what we read in Kate!) and lends itself to an obvious re-emergence arc. Her husband has an affair with a stunningly beautiful actress who she then has to see on the telly in innumerable British dramas and then at the BAFTAs. Frankly, the actress in that scenario is not interesting – the wronged wife is the more natural protagonist for women’s fiction narrative – and given Ruth Jones’s background with ‘Stella’, it’s who I think would have been the more natural conduit for this story from her.

The timeline also jumps around quite a bit. We can go from Callum and Kate having a tryst at a Travelodge, to the next chapter is her back on-set and then she’ll recount how she got home … it flits and flies about, again – almost like Jones is used to on-set locations filling in the context with visual-cues, and not having to map her character’s whereabouts in timeline.

Now, I wondered if I was just being really harsh on this book – because my hopes were up? But then I read this Guardian books review, and I was relieved to find someone else who had the same frustrations; “Jones may have a good novel in her, but even her spark can’t set this soggy material alight.” Ouch. But – accurate.

Fair-warning too – there are no happy-endings here. There’s also no big ‘Fleabag’-esque climax that reveals real emotional and social consequences for the hurt caused prior, nor a sense of moving forward. It just kind of … ends. With a thud. And while the last 60 or so pages do have a better feeling of pace and urgency, it still all amounts to – well – not a lot, really.

I still believe that Ruth Jones has a few good stories to tell, that’ll come across in novel-form. But I think her publisher and editor need to help rid her of the lazy ways she seems stuck in TV-mode, to the detriment of these fiction attempts. Her star alone can’t carry a bad story, awkwardly told.

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2/5