My Oxford Year, by Julia Whelan

When my older sister and I were teenagers, we shared book suggestions like Halloween candy, something that has slowed in recent years because, well, life, and changes in book tastes. For Christmas this year, she actually gifted my little sister, our mom, and me with the same book: My Oxford Year, by Julia Whelan. The suggestion in itself was not surprising, since my older sister loves anything to do with merry ole England (she is the proud family Potterhead, after all), but what is surprising is how, yet again, another piece of book candy turned my expectations in a one-eighty.

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Eleanor “Ella” Durran has wanted to go to Oxford since she was thirteen years old. After eleven years of study and dreaming, she has finally made it there, ready to take on the world. Oxford is a lovely city, but there is one other beauty she cannot deny—Jamie Davenport, her literature teacher. It’s hate at first sight with the two of them, but such feelings can only be followed by sweet love. However, no love story is complete without secrets and drama, and, as Ella is about to discover, Jamie has a few of the former…

I was in the midst of The Shape of Water when I received this book, and, I’ll admit, I inwardly scoffed when I read the title and the synopsis of My Oxford Year. Finishing such a masterfully emotional roller coaster like Shape of Water, only to dive right into a corny wish-fulfillment novel about a lucky American girl’s year in Oxford—this was going to be easy. I mean, My Oxford Year? It sounded like a cheesy admissions essay title for a story high on nostalgia and goo-goo eyes.

Let’s just say, I should simply not scoff at my sister’s reading choices—like, at all.

This isn’t some Oxford graduate’s nostalgic wet dream about the college. It does pay homage to the college’s historical and architectural beauty, but Oxford remains a backdrop—as it should be—for a compelling coming-of-age story. Julia Whelan is capable enough to know that a story with actual stakes and inward struggle is what keeps the pages turning, rather than an orgy of details about one particularly lovely place.

Now, once Ella finally stopped blurting her name to every Oxford bloke she encountered, I came to like her slight awkwardness and overall enthusiasm. I suppose I simply appreciate that she wasn’t just a gawking American tourist; she’s actually got a good head on her shoulders, and a good heart. She knows what she wants, and she is really smart, but she is honestly relatable. She holds her own in her relationship with Jamie, and after a while, I completely forgot that they were student and teacher. The teacher in me had an initial aversion to such a pairing—the slight wish fulfillment of a teacher risking his career for a forbidden relationship had something to do with it—but their relationship was natural enough that, somehow, I was fine with it.

The synopsis promises that Jamie has a “life-changing secret,” which often means that the character is sick and dying. Thus, I hardened myself against the usual emotional drama, which was kind of easy to do, since the story makes the usual emotional points one after the other. Well, most of them. After putting the book down, I didn’t know whether the ending was a copout or not, but as I write, I think Whelan chose the right one. This story feels like a casual, natural conversation about life and love, and it doesn’t beg for you to feel the weight of such topics. There was surprisingly little emotional schlock here.

While this book may hit many expected staples of book candy, and does not necessarily make one daydream of Oxford, it still complements a comfy chair and a cup of tea. The title might promise fluff and sweetness, but luckily, some candies are richer and heftier than others.

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