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Blog Tour Review + Giveaway | My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan

I'm delighted to be a part of the blog tour for Julia Whelan's debut novel My Oxford Year. I'll confess this beautiful cover is what initially drew my eye. It's just a book I wanted to have on my shelf aesthetically. But even before I saw the cover, I'd heard of this title. It's as though it's been floating around in the ether for awhile now, what with a major motion picture already being in development. Truthfully, that level of advance hype gave me pause, as did the implied titular time constraint. Something about it fairly screamed, "Unplumbed depths of pain lurk beneath this charming cover." I was wary. But some gut instinct kicked in, encouraging me to give this one a chance. I am so very glad I did. The novel is an adaptation of an original screenplay (a fact I found out after turning the final page), and I sat with that for awhile sussing out how I felt about it. In the end, I don't think it really alters my experience with this text. I've formed my own primary relationship with it here. I'm also looking forward to seeing the film and giving that experience its due.

Ella Durran is literally standing in the London customs line about to embark on her dream year at Oxford when her phone rings. On the other end of the line is a job offer she can't refuse, working on the presidential campaign for a candidate she genuinely believes in. But Oxford has been the goal for as long as she can remember, so Ella (being the savvy contender that she is) strikes a deal. She'll be available day or night, working remotely from Oxford until the duration of her Rhodes scholarship ends, whereupon she will return to Washington, D.C., her future literally laid out before her. And it seems like the perfect plan. Until the idyll suffers a seismic shift in the form of a seemingly innocuous (if incredibly unpleasant) encounter with an obnoxious man in a chip shop. The momentary blip turns into a long-term nightmare on the first day of classes, when the man from the shop turns out to be none other than Jamie Davenport, Ella's literature lecturer. Not only do they not see eye to eye on the subject of condiments, they seem to differ on everything under the sun, beginning and ending with the literature they both love and just why and how it forms the fabric of life. Before long, they can't seem to leave each other alone in or out of the lecture hall. And it's becoming more and more difficult to remember a time before they sparred in quiet pub corners, to say nothing of that seemingly distant point when it will be time to leave.
Some of the larger buildings have huge wooden gates that look as if they were carved in place, a fusion of timeless wood and stone that steals my breath. Maybe those doors lead to some of the thirty-eight individual Oxford colleges? Imagining it, dreaming of it all these years, doesn't do it justice.I look skyward. Punctuating the horizon are the tips of other ancient buildings, high points of stone bordering the city like beacons.

"The City of Dreaming Spires," I murmur to myself.

"Indeed it is," Gavin says in my ear. I'd forgotten he was still on the line.

That's what they call Oxford. A title well deserved. Because that means, before it was my dream or Seventeen magazine girl's dream, it was someone else's dream as well.
It was that last line, right there at the end of the first chapter that sank me. It captured perfectly my feelings the moment I stepped off the coach and started my own wander in Oxford. The layers upon layers of dreams and knowledge and wanting fairly suffused my soul that October day. It came as no surprise, then, that I felt fully involved from that moment on in Ella's time among those hallowed halls and lanes. The lovely bit is that Whelan's writing strikes an appreciable balance between the inherent lightness and untroubled nature of a 24-year-old young woman on her first real adventure in a foreign country and the nuanced depth of that woman's dedication to forging a better world using every carefully honed skill she possesses. The love for literature (most particularly Ella's love for Middlemarch) that forms the foundation of Ella and Jamie's bond also serves to anchor the story. And you likely knew the second I mentioned Middlemarch that this book and I would get on. But predilections aside, I cannot fail to mention a moment in which Ella makes an observation on Dorothea Brooke that rang so true for me, it took my breath away. It is echoed once more at a pivotal moment in the novel to exquisite effect, and it has lingered with me ever since. 
Fifteen minutes after leaving Sophie in the filthy bathroom, I'm standing at Jamie's door, sopping wet and no longer calm. That vanished when I turned off Banbury Road onto Norham Gardens, my wet clothes chafing with every step, the wind wrapping my hair around my face and throat like clingy fingers. In its place, single-minded, near-homicidal rage.

We were better than this, Jamie and I. We weren't much, maybe, but we weren't this. This cliché. This statistic. This sadly predictable inevitability. As Jamie had said in our first tute, "We're the clever ones. We're Oxonians."

This is not the way the clever ones end.
"I'm sorry. About everything, okay? I should have realized you weren't―"

"No, please. Stop right there. You feel bad, I feel bad, but we will not plague each other with guilt. It's an absurd emotion, reserved for those who we fear might feel less than they ought." He looks in my eyes. "You and I, we carry on. If we stop, it is to only catch our breath. Well, breath caught.
It's that way with them. And it's that way with me. I love how direct these two are. I worried so much, as I could feel the weight of the untenable situation they found themselves in starting to close in ever tighter. While reading novels of a somewhat similar bent, I often find myself feeling hounded by the heavy hand of the author as the whole thing crosses over into the kind of emotional manipulation I detest. And while the nature of the conflict flirted with the edges of my tolerance, it never crossed over for me. It's the genuine and subtle exploration of the written word that held me with Ella and Jamie, that held them with each other, when the inevitable darkness comes to call. And call it does. Far earlier than I expected, even going in as prepared as I thought I was. But it is okay. I repeat, it is okay. Because words are the bridge. The accumulated words of the centuries that fold in around us to let us know we're not alone. Bridges of all sorts are important in this lovely novel. Bridges formed by our family, the past, our combined failures, and our dreams. But always by words.


ABOUT JULIA WHELAN
Julia Whelan is a screenwriter, lifelong actor, and award-winning audiobook narrator. She graduated with a degree in English and creative writing from Middlebury College and Oxford University. While she was in England, her flirtation with tea blossomed into a full-blown love affair, culminating in her eventual certification as a tea master.

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GIVEAWAY
To celebrate today's release, William Morrow has kindly offered up one paperback copy to one lucky reader. The giveaway is open to U.S. and Canada addresses and will run through Tuesday, May 1st. To enter, simply fill out the Rafflecopter. Good luck and happy reading!

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