By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 24, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
Julia Whelan

For storytellers, the allure of Oxford is hard to resist – it’s history-steeped cobblestone streets, eccentric academics, and the potential for secret lives nestled firmly within its hallowed cloisters offer an ineluctable pull. Whether they merely choose to live and work there (Tolkien, Lewis) or actually set their narratives amid its Gothic spires (Waugh, Pullman), the city has offered unending inspiration for writers. It can be easy to get it wrong – to lean too hard on its plummy quintessential British-ness, to disregard actual geography for narrative, or to fall too hard under its mystical spell. But when it’s right — when it nails the idiosyncrasies of the academic system, the peculiar blend of frustration, exhaustion, and romance it weaves over its students, and the emotional sensibilities unique to Oxford as a place, it reads like magic.

With My Oxford Year, Julia Whelan has crafted a breathtakingly perfect picture of Oxford – one that will make those who have never visited fall for a city they’ve never laid eyes on and pull at the heartstrings of those plagued by the cruel nostalgia it instills in its students. The novel follows Ella Durran, an American studying English literature courtesy of a Rhodes scholarship and simultaneously trying to balance consulting work on a presidential campaign. She takes up her place at Oxford to fulfill a lifelong dream, but finds things quickly thrown off course when a handsome, maddening British stranger turns out to also be her literature professor, Jamie Davenport. As things move from year abroad fling to something more serious, the two must face the ghosts of their past and learn what it truly is to love someone with a generous heart.

At its outset, the book seems like a romantic comedy with its mishap-laden meet-cute and its opposites-attract romance against a picturesque backdrop. This in itself would offer a read bursting with warmth, mirth, and heart – but the book takes a Me Before You–esque turn midway through into deeply tragic territory. It’s a testament to Whelan’s writing that it masterfully avoids the pitfalls of the well-trod tragic romance, expertly evading anything that might read as maudlin. Instead, she crafts a powerfully heartbreaking and life-affirming tribute to love and to choice – to choosing love and an open-hearted approach to the world.

Whelan deftly balances the wit and charm of the early scenes with the unexpected heft and feeling of the second half. Early on, she delivers rom-com delights of the highest order suffused with the extra aplomb of Ella’s trio of idiosyncratic, endlessly lovable friends. She switches gears with ease offering a tale of first love and self-discovery tinged with a wry tenderness that plucks at the heartstrings. All of this is done with an affectionate understanding of what it means to be an American student in Oxford – its magical moments and its draining ones. The care and attention Whelan has paid to her setting and all its attendant peculiarities rendered this reviewer (a former American in Oxford herself) breathless with longing for a place that is at turns infuriating and intoxicating.

Whelan writes of finding “forever after” – an unknowable, indefinable entity as mysterious as the inner workings of the human heart. Her writing offers a glimpse of understanding of what that could possibly mean – something fleeting and profound and rare that will linger with you long after its gone, much like this book. A

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