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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

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