The Great Believers

Affirming lives lost to HIV/AIDS in the early years of the crisis and the survivors who loved and cared for them (Boystown, Chicago 1985 to 1992; Paris 2015): While writing this, I’m listening to Simon and Garfunkel harmonizing America in Central Park, 1981. It was Nico’s favorite song, the pivotal character in The Great Believers whose death from HIV/AIDS in 1985, when Rebecca Makkai’s brilliant third novel opens, changes the lives of her two main characters – Yale and Fiona – forever.

Simon & Garfunkel – America (from The Concert in Central Park)

Brilliant is not a word to use lightly. But I keep coming back to it. Here’s why:

Nico’s searching-for-America song about lovers who felt empty and aching expresses much of the poignant, soulful tone of the novel.

Timelines matter historically and fictionally. The year 1985 reflects well-conceived historical time markers when Chicago’s Boystown – America’s first openly accepted gay village – was not yet a “graveyard” like San Francisco and New York. Gay (and lesbian, men the first infected so the focus) bars and discos felt “safer, and happier.” That’s before the “slow-motion tsunamis from both coasts” hit.

Art, which binds the plotting and gives it beauty, was supposed to be the main theme, AIDS secondary. But after the author interviewed those who “lived through all this and sat down to coffee or let me into their homes or emailed with me endlessly, in many cases with personal and traumatic things,” she says in her Author’s Notes and Acknowledgements,” it took over, giving voice “to the memories of the amazing men you all told me about.”

On the surface, The Great Believers may seem too depressing to read if you’re looking to escape an historical crisis assaulting human rights, discrimination, chaos, misinformation, fear. Actually, these familiar realties draw you in. Makkai is not afraid to tell it like it was, quite graphically at times, but she does so with great compassion and understanding, breaking stereotypes and finding silver linings. When love is “the point of everything” we empathize with those who suffered.

Her prose is crafted with precision, strategically connecting characters over thirty years, making us feel connected by six degrees of separation, or less.

Brilliant balancing lives cut short leaving holes in the hearts left behind, reminding us true Love and Art are everlasting.

Nico’s death haunts Yale and Fiona. Both of their storylines involve art, Yale’s more substantially. Yale’s chapters are all-consuming, Fiona’s come thirty years later. Nico was Yale’s first friend when he moved to Chicago. Never lovers, these two gay men bonded over their mutual passion for art. Fiona is Nico’s sister; she disowned her parents when they disowned him. She mothered Nico like she does Yale, estranged from his actress mother, abandoned at three. “Being touched was Yale’s weakness,” sad and significant.

The leap from Chicago in the ‘80s and ‘90s to Paris 2015 feels uninterrupted. Fiona, almost sixty, still mourning Nico, flees to the City of Love believing her daughter, Claire, now a mother, may be there. She hasn’t seen or heard from her in three years since she headed to Colorado to join a cult. Fictionally, the cruel timing of Claire’s birth drives home the enormous, long-term emotional toll AIDS took on Fiona’s family. Paris is a smart setting for the artistic theme, and because “everything about AIDS had been better all along in France … Less shame, more education, more funding, more research.”

The opening line begins with Nico’s funeral happening twenty miles from Nico’s lover Terrence, Fiona, and friends. Instead, everyone that matters is headed to a “forced festivity” Nico insisted on. These are Yale’s and Fiona’s friends too. “All overachievers,” Yale tells us later, as they “seemed to be overachieving in this terrible, new way too.”

The celebration is being hosted at Richard’s house. Fifteen years older than his guests, he’s a gay photographer always hanging around capturing their lives. It’s his Paris home, shared with his lover, that Fiona is staying at. Richard is now famous, readying for a noteworthy exhibition of his photographic art documenting the AIDS epidemic, which means Fiona’s past merges with the present.

Also in 1985: Ryan White, a brave teenager with a blood disorder was denied admission to middle school. He called international attention to how the virus also spread. His activism helped turn the tide. His name appears in the novel. So does Rock Hudson’s, the handsome, wasted-away actor who died in 1985, succumbing to the disease he’d hidden from his adoring public. Still, it took two more years for Ronald Reagan to acknowledge the crisis. He’s here too, along with the growing anger towards his administration’s inaction. Though this was also the year when the FDA approved a blood test for HIV/AIDS, the test Nico took.

Not everyone did. Infected meant you’d die back then (100 drugs are available today, making the dreaded diagnosis not the seal of death). Yale is torn up about the blood screening. Who wants to know you’re going to die soon? What about one’s moral obligation to know so you don’t infect others?

It takes 100 of 400+ pages to detail 1985 to 1986. Nico’s death comes at the same time Yale’s art career as development director of a fictional new gallery at Northwestern University, the Briggs, is taking off. (The Block art museum is the real one.) It may be one of the few places the Chicago author invents, perhaps because she teaches creative writing there. Real places and real events are planted throughout; the rest fictional.

Fiona’s Paris is also intertwined in Yale’s story: Nora, ninety years old, a former artist’s muse and artist herself in Paris before and soon after WWI, has chosen Yale to navigate and curate her beloved art collection she wants to bequeath to the Briggs against her family’s desires. The collection comprises sketches, drawings, and paintings by Italian, French, Russian, Bulgarian, and Japanese artists such as Modigliani, Hébuterne, Soutine, Pascin, Foujita, and a total unknown, Ranko Novak. You won’t have to wait too long to find out why she picked Yale; Ranko’s mystery intriguingly stretches out.

Yale is kind, diplomatic, and very good at what he does. Nora now lives in Wisconsin, so he travels often (with several Briggs characters) to negotiate this delicate transaction. The collection has to be authenticated and valued. It could be worth two million or more, putting the Briggs on the map and cinching Yale’s career. As Nora’s backstory is disclosed little by little, Yale becomes committed to carrying out her specific wishes. Nora is dying, so his travails and sacrifices add more suspense. We’re already turning pages to see what happens to Yale’s health.

Meanwhile, Yale is also dealing with his obsessively possessive, long-time lover, Charlie, an activist who runs a fictitious gay newspaper inspired by real ones.

Makkai’s gay characters come from Cuban, Jewish, Mormon, white, and black heritages. Besides creative careers, others include philosophy and law. Nora, on the other hand, works at a resale shop that provides funds to the Howard Brown health center, which established Chicago’s AIDS hotline, notably in 1985. Founded by gay medical students, it’s one of our largest LGBTQ organizations, providing “life-affirming” care.

The Great Believers affirms life too, by affirming lives lost and the survivors who loved and cared for them.


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The High Season

How wealth destroys (Long Island, New York; present-day): A wave of big summer books has arrived. How to choose when so many look so inviting? An opening line? Readers of this blog know that often does it for me:

“Every summer Ruthie gave away her house by the sea” kicks off The High Season, instantly drawing us in. Just a few words – penned by National Book Award-winning YA author Judy Blundell, her first foray into the adult genre – convey a lot.

They give us a sense of time and place, at some presumably prized water setting. The tone sounds regretful, even resentful. We can imagine reasons why Ruthie might chronically vacate her waterfront home during the most valued season of all, but we’re curious to know Ruthie’s.

Besides piquing our interest, Blundell gives us a glimpse into her novel’s pernicious theme on our intensifying ends-justifies-the-means culture valuing money over ethics, honesty, decency.

By setting up an unsuspecting, earnest protagonist in a fast-trending locale, we’re wickedly reminded that even the nicest of us can be terribly burned by people we thought we could trust.

Orient Point Lighthouse
By Rob4958 [CC BY-SA 4.0]
from Wikimedia Commons

Ruthie Beamish nourished her home on one of the tips of Long Island: the un-glam” North Fork, Orient Point. “Two ferry rides away, and it showed” from the exclusive, elusive Hamptons.

Ruthie was an artist, a painter who cut her teeth in a Manhattan studio working for a misogynist, iconic artist now deceased. For the past seven years, she’s been doing a terrific job as the director of a small local museum showcasing artifacts of Benedict Arnold and, thanks to Ruthie, contemporary art installations.

The Belfry Museum is fictionalized, as is nearly everything else in the novel, though the author has had a front row seat observing regional museum life as her husband is the Executive Director of a real one, located elsewhere on Long Island. This interesting tidbit, mentioned in the Acknowledgements, helps explain how she twisted a museum board from the “exemplary examples of commitment and principle” of the “ninety-nine percent of the board members I’ve known or heard about” into an unethical, treacherous bunch.

Enter sensible from modest means, caring Ruthie, who didn’t see under “all that shabby hid a secret life of the moneyed, serious culture class.” She didn’t expect the raw deal, actually several, coming. Why should she? She lives on an idyllic “narrowest ribbon of land, where light bounced from bay to sound and the air was seasoned with salt.” A laid-back place of “farm stands on real farms,” of “pies and parades,” with a country store that sells “the greatest salted oatmeal cookie in the world.” But times they are a changin.

Ruthie adores her home, but rents it out every summer to keep it, secure a nest egg, and save for her beautiful, fifteen-year-old daughter’s college education. Jem, on the other hand, is put out by the “summer bummer,” at an age when she’s dealing with teenage angst heard through doozies of email phone messages. She’s the second female voice telling this cautionary tale.

Ruthie says she “married her best friend.” She and Michael have reverently renovated a 19th century farmhouse he inherited. Today it “breathed in peace and lemons” near a picture-postcard village. Perfect? Of course not.

Ruthie and Mike have been separated for the past three years. They’ve managed to keep their family intact as best they can, especially for Jem’s sake. Mike is a carpenter who lives in town, a former artist too, an abstract painter who couldn’t make a career go of it. Somewhere along the line the perennial renting out turned a home into merely an investment property. All the re-settling has unsettled Mike, a live-and-let-live kind of guy. Handsome, he’s another of a string of beautiful-looking, dissatisfied characters.

A third female voice – Doe’s – serves as the epitome of what’s wrong with social media. Handy with her camera, she’s reinvented herself with a cunning strategic goal aimed at growing her Instagram followers because all she cares about is money no matter who gets hurt. Concocting lie after lie to get what she’s after, she’s one of many entangled characters. Doe works part-time at the museum.

Ruthie you’ll like despite what she gets herself into – innocently, accidentally, and by design. We root for her because she’s one of the very few good, genuine people in this “spinning world.” The other is an old beau she bumps into at one of those nostalgic farm stands. Head-turning too, but this guy oozes kindness. Both stand out in a cast of unlikeable trouble-makers filling over 400 pages.

Adeline Clay is this year’s summer renter. Rich and “visible,” she doesn’t fit the Orient Point mold, but that’s about to be broken. “Well known as one of New York’s most stylish older women,” her clothes and demeanor wreak: “I am rich, and this is appropriate summer attire, because this is as beachy as I’m willing to get.”

What’s she doing in a place where “the dress code was old sneakers”? She says she’s come for some peace and quiet. How’s that possible when she was married to that misanthrope painter, Ruthie’s nemesis? Her past will come back to bite her.

Her new boyfriend, Daniel Mantis, is a repugnant, cheating billionaire, a “financial raider.” He owns an ultra-modern, minimalist Hamptons home featuring his priceless collection of abstract art.

Daniel is the father of two twenty-something spoiled brats. Lucas, the younger one, may be “the hottest guy I’ve ever seen,” Jem types into her phone to impress her in-crowd friends. He can’t stand Adeline, but he also carries around profound anger for his late mother, affecting how he treats all females. His older sister, Lark, has her own issues. Beware of them all, Ruthie!

Besides beauty that fools, money and the power it affords, art binds these bad actors together. Ruthie’s board members are another worrisome lot. Some supposedly friends, including her closest friend, Carole. Jet-setting off to spend the summer in France, her empty guesthouse quarters treat Ruthie and Jem to a rare make-the-best-of-it place, also at a steep price.

Everything happens during one momentous summer. Chapters are organized around the summer holidays. Clever headings like Independence Day when Ruthie breaks loose, and Bastille Day when there’s a revolution of sorts.

An epilogue lets us know how Ruthie picks up the pieces after things fall apart, too many things Ruthie cherishes. For a while, she loses it badly, snaps. We want to forgive her since she’s been sabotaged. Though Mike can’t get over how “you were never mean like this.” And didn’t he count on that? Didn’t everyone, she reflects.

Jem’s online presence isn’t meant to be pretty. A good kid, she gets herself into trouble as she’s awfully vulnerable. Blundell clearly knows what makes this insecure YA crowd tick.

Why are we obsessed with the rich and famous? Do we really believe they have it all? The recent, shocking suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade should convince us for once and for all that money/glamour/celebrity do not buy happiness.

Rather than dwell on the sorrowful, The High Season lets us see what’s sadly missing in this slice of a shameless super-rich world, dishing out serious fun, meaningfully. Big in more ways than one.


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The Other Alcott

The artist obscured by her famous sister (Concord and Boston, Massachusetts, London, Paris and villages, Rome, 1868 – 1879): Calling all feminists, aspiring artists, historical fiction buffs, and readers who relish genteel prose and old-fashioned letters with big, thought-provoking, timely themes.

Now couldn’t be more fitting to read The Other Alcott published last year, as 2018 is the 150th anniversary of the never-out-of-print Little Women. This is a March sister story we didn’t know, about May Alcott, one of the four sisters (Jo, Meg, Lizzie, Amy) depicted in Louisa May Alcott’s beloved children’s classic, drawn from her family. Amy March, inspired by May, became an acclaimed painter during an important historical era. The Other Alcott brings her to life in this packed-with-history 400+ page novel.

What we know of May was how she was portrayed in her sister’s literary hands when May was twelve. While the book was a huge, much-needed financial boost for the impoverished Alcott family, ironically, Louisa considered it and sequels Good Wives, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys “hokum,” balking at being pigeon-holed into writing them by her publisher. (She also wrote under a pseudonym, A. M. Barnard, hiding her identity and gender to be free to write like the maverick family she was born into).

May is twenty-eight when her story begins.

The epistolary format is used quite effectively from time to time. The novel opens with a sorrowful letter May wrote to Louisa but never sent, revealing the two had been estranged for quite a while and that theirs was always a difficult relationship:

“I long to turn back the clock and mend the rift between us, though now that I think on it, if I could go back in time when would I go back to? When was our relationship ever simple?”

May “favored happy endings,” so from the beginning we’re lured into wondering if she and Louisa ever made up? What caused the serious rift?

Elise Hooper is a history and literature teacher who grew up near the Alcott’s much-publicized home in Concord, Massachusetts: Orchard House. (They moved over twenty times before settling there.) It’s fair to say Hooper has been intrigued by this unorthodox family since childhood.

Father Bronson was a philosopher, member of the Transcendentalist movement who communed with nature and shunned traditional values, leaving his family so poor he needed his neighbor and philosopher friend Ralph Waldo Emerson to support the family until Louisa takes over. (Nathaniel Hawthorne, another neighbor and transcendentalist.)

Curiosity about May led the author to dig extensively into her history to find out what she could, and then imagined the rest.

Expect to see painterly prose expressing May’s love of painting (“chokeberry bushes, luminous in a hue straight from a tube of vermilion paint”), and mostly real historical figures. Some famous, but it’s the cast of also unknown female artists May encounters and befriends during the course of her artistic development that add another layer to the novel’s richness.

Orchard House is now a museum, evoking the Alcotts’ past like Hooper’s novel.

Orchard House: Home of Little Women Trailer (2018)

As a fan of Author’s Notes that distinguish fact from fiction Hooper’s are exemplary: a wonderfully informative nine-page Afterword, followed by another lengthy Conversation with the Author, describing “what became of” the historical female artists. They’re introduced to us in five chronological parts that track May’s travels to pursue her art: to Boston, London, Rome, Paris and two charming French villages.

The focus of the novel, of course, is what became of May?

May was shaped by an outgoing, winsome personality, in extreme contrast to Louisa’s solitary, brooding soul; her non-conformist family; art masters she mentored under; artist friendships; infatuations (one with her art teacher) and a genuine love; and American and European art movements of the day.

Unlike Louisa, she wanted to have a happy marriage and an art career. Family obligations dictated by Louisa often interrupted May’s work, contributing to her resentment of her prickly sister (though she was dedicated to her ailing, toiling mother, “Marmee,” an abolitionist, a suffragette like Louisa.) She longed to make it on her own, influenced by poverty and burdened by indebtedness to Louisa, so she too-willingly adhered to the limiting constraints of the male-dominated, conservative art worlds to gain acceptance, sell her work. Conflicted by admiration for Louisa’s fierce independence (though she did not want to be a spinster), and a range of disquieting emotions as judgmental Louisa believed May’s “desires for comfort, happiness, and stability to be shortcomings, moral failures, signs of selfishness.”

Depicting Amy March as self-indulgent is seen as the source of original tensions with Louisa. It was terribly humiliating (and unfair) to be viewed this way to a wide public adoring her sister’s book. May’s illustrations accompanied it, harshly criticized too. This double “pain of rejection” stuck with May affecting her self-confidence, her artistic exploration.

Hooper focuses her light on an age when women were fighting for equality in many arenas of society. Few art classes were even open to women, and Louisa paid for most of May’s.

In Boston, May was frustrated and stymied by the rigor of exercises in anatomical preciseness as the market was portraiture and photographic-like landscapes while her softer sensibilities were watercolors, something more flowing. She studied under a medical doctor-artist who grilled his students in anatomy; she struggled with sketching live models. She lived with Louisa at the defunct Bellevue Hotel (now condos), where Louisa feverishly immersed herself in non-stop writing to the detriment of her already compromised health. This swanky hotel in Beacon Hill signified Louisa’s increased earning power beyond the $1.50 she was paid for Little Women!

In London and Paris, May discovers “art lives in the galleries and museums,” but “in Rome, it’s everywhere.” A city filled with constant intersections between art and life,” enhancing connectedness to history and aestheticism.

May gets advice from the likes of Elizabeth Jane Gardner, Helen Knowlton, Anne Whitney, and fictional Alice Bartol, fashioned from the real Alice Bartlett and Lizzie Bartol. “Stake a claim on your ambitions, counsels Jane. “If you wait around for other people to define you, you’ll be saddled with their expectations – and that’s dangerous territory for a woman.”

It took years for May to figure that out. Her breakthrough comes when Mary Cassatt enters the picture. Still an uphill battle, soul-searching the artist she was and the one she wanted to be. Mary was in the midst of her own existential crisis, at the cusp of abandoning the prestigious, obsessively competitive Paris Salons, eventually joining forces with what evolved into the Impressionist movement. Degas and Monet make a brief appearance.

The rise of Impressionism is symbolic of what May was up against. It takes most of the novel for her to summon the courage to break out of the mold, to be bold. You can see how far she came in her best known work, a small, striking painting, La Négresse, considered her masterwork.

“We’re all students, Helen Knowlton says. “This is one of the beauties of being an artist: there’s always more to learn.” May’s artistic journey offers lessons on how “to find something special inside ourselves.”

Was she ever able to find that special place inside herself to reconcile with Louisa? A poignant path worth taking.


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The Clairvoyants

Believing the unbelievable (Connecticut shoreline and Ithaca, New York; sometime after the late 90s): If you told me I’d be raving about a paranormal novel in which the central character – Martha Mary – sees the dead, I wouldn’t believe you.

The Clairvoyants is psychological intrigue that eclipses abnormal mysteries of the psyche to significant supernatural realms. With terrific prose, Karen Brown manages to pull off her parapsychological story so believably, blending past and present, truth versus lies or something much stranger. Stranger than the two unsolved deaths that haunt this tale of foresaken souls, living and dead.

A 19th century quote by Charles Webster Leadbetter, a clairvoyant and leader of the theosophy movement, introduces the surreal:

“And he will find them divisible into two great classes – those whom we call the living, and those others, most of them infinitely more alive, whom we so foolishly misname the dead.”

From the start, I wanted a psychic’s dictionary! (Plenty online). While theosophists have faith in otherworldly dimensions grounded in kindness, peacefulness, non-violence, the characters in this novel are not at peace. Far from it.

A better resource would be to sit in one of the author’s creative writing classes (she teaches at the University of South Florida) to hear her speak about the techniques she uses to create chilling psychic suspense: gothic elements and nature to heighten the somber mood, to plunge emotional depths and complexities.

To help set the mournful tone, you might want to listen to a piece of beautifully sad music – the Elgar cello – Martha hears at the ending. Written by British composer Edgar Elger after WWI, it’s gorgeously composed yet full of pain. Symbolic of the overall feel to the novel.

Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 | Xavier Phillips, Cello

Do you believe in ghosts? Extrasensory perceptions (ESP) as in seeing ghostly visions of the dead? Do you think someone who sees past events and haunted places is mentally ill? Or, could the unexplainable be possibly explained?

Karen Brown explores the possibility that if a person is acutely and chronically stressed, desperately lonely, craving love and affection, and there’s a strong genetic component to being taken in by clairvoyance, it’s possible that individual, like our narrator Martha, could experience weird phenomena outside the normal senses. To further her message, Martha’s younger (only by a year) sister Del had a psychotic break in her teens resulting in psychiatric hospitalization, then moved to assisted living, around the time a fifteen-year boy, David Pinney, was murdered. His death also marks the onslaught of Martha’s recurring ghost spirits, torturing her soul.

Eleven universities from around the world once or still study paranormal phenomena.  Might there be a shred of something to all of this?

Brown sets the supernatural stage in the opening pages by telling us about Martha’s great-grandfather’s occult manuals she uncovered in a barn on the family’s Connecticut property by the Long Island Sound.The titles of the manuals tip us off: Psychometry, Clairvoyance, and Thought-Transference and Psychism, Ghostology, and the Astral Plane. So do his marginal notes asking:

“What is the ethereal double? Who travels on the astral plane? How does the clairvoyant receive messages from the dead?”

Another early indicator that we’re in for something different is the Connecticut acreage was purchased in the 1890s, a timeframe that aligns to the theosophical movement, and that a portion was leased to a clairvoyant group that keeps reappearing: the Spiritualists by the Sea. They built a temple, and when Martha and Del were growing up the spiritualists lived in colorful cottages and played eerie organ music.

Martha and Del are peculiar characters, but they’re not the only ones. Their mother is buttoned-up, a cold fish who works at a prison store; their parents are divorced and their father is out of the picture; and the two girls are alienated from their much older sisters. Martha was expected to watch over impulsive, promiscuous, seductive Del, a love-hate relationship of resentment, jealousy, isolation. Feelings of abandonment loom large.

Before Del had her mental breakdown, the two sisters’ idea of play, always instigated by Del, was fortunetelling, conducting seances. “Lying was what we did best together,” says Martha, who seems an honest broker until you’re not so sure she is. You’re led to believe Martha is the stronger of the two, until things shift and then you’re not so sure about that too. What you do know is both sisters are coming-of-age psychologically disturbed, awfully damaged.

Another abnormal character is William Bell, whom Martha meets when she goes to Cornell University and gets deeply entangled with him. Martha is, not surprisingly, drawn to abandoned places, so she focuses her studies on photographing abandoned sites. William teaches photography at the college, obsessed with photographing vulnerable people. When revealed what that entails, you’ll get the creeps. At first, Martha’s loneliness fits William, an only child whose parents are gone, so she puts up with his oddities, evasiveness, and disappearances, telling herself this is what it means to be consumed by one’s art. Don’t be fooled!

Martha hoped when she left Connecticut she’d also leave behind her ghostly apparitions, which begin on the first line of chapter one. Only seven, she claims to have seen her great aunt whom she’s named after. Next comes David Pinney’s persistent ghost, which is why she’s“doubtful that freedom would ever really be mine.” Martha’s demons don’t go away. As soon as she arrives at Cornell, she glimpses the second unsolved death – the ghost of Mary Rae Swindel – central to the plot.

“I could distinguish them from the living by the way they stared at me, their expressions anxious and filled with longing, as if there appearances had been conjured by the despair of a lost love.”

The author very effectively and consistently uses secluded landscapes, abandoned places, and gloomy weather to achieve a spooky effect. (“The elm cast shadows on my white plaster wall, and its branches, sheathed in ice, clicked together like bones.”) She knows these areas from personal experiences having grown up in Connecticut and graduated from Cornell in Ithaca, New York. Now living in Florida, none of its sunshine warms this ominous story.

While there are two warmer characters, they’ve got problems too. One is a painter, Anne, friends with William; the other Martha’s landlord, Geoff, a British fellow characterized as a “Heathcliff type,” a nod to the American Gothic classic Wuthering Heights.

It’s not just the thermometer that registers chilly but the emotional one. Lots of sex, characters searching for warmth, but their acts have nothing to do with love and grow increasingly perverse.

Del’s time at a psychiatric hospital wasn’t pure fiction. Brown tells us the beautiful film star, Gene Tierney, reported to have had seventeen breakdowns in the forties and fifties, was hospitalized there too, enduring electroshock treatments like Del did decades later.

When it’s hard to distinguish reality you can’t help but wonder if other references to key places were inspired by real ones. The acknowledgements provide some answers. The most revealing reference, though, is the course Martha is taking on Women and Grief.

I’m still not a believer, but this was one heck of a believable tale.


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My Oxford Year

My Oxford YearTimeless lessons on love and life learned in a timeless city (Oxford, England, present-day): A big shout out to My Oxford Year. It’s everything you want in feel-good, romantic fiction. I’m shouting having just given up on a stretch of dark, rambling novels, cheerful this one shines bright and crisp.

Due in part to an uplifting premise: idealistic, brainy, red-headed Julia Roberts-like, twenty-five-year-old “Ella from Ohio” seizes her “Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience” to study at Oxford (Victorian literature; Victorian poetry introduces each chapter) on a Rhodes scholarship, vowing a year of “pushing boundaries, and exploring new things.” Largely, though, because Julia Whalen knows her way around words.

While this is Whalen’s debut as a novelist, she’s no stranger to words. A screenwriter asked to rewrite the words for the screenplay Oxford by Allison Burnett, which inspired this novel, she’s also been tuned to expressing words as an actress and as a narrator of a bestselling list of audiobooks like Kristan Hannah’s newest The Great Alone and Gone Girls. Now it’s her turn to craft “words that hold clues.”

Ella Durran, despite all her best laid game plans, has fallen for a man with a secret: strikingly handsome Jamie Davenport known for breaking hearts. They meet under the worst circumstances, swiftly set up in a series of cinematic scenes. No surprise that a movie is in the works.

Ella arrives in Oxford disoriented and exhausted. On her way to a fish and chip restaurant, she’s nearly run over by Jamie driving a snazzy, Aston-Martin silver convertible with a blond passenger. Soon there’s an incident in said restaurant that causes a commotion when Jamie accidentally crashes into Ella whose carrying her meal with a sampler of messy sauces, resulting in Ella barking “you posh prat.” Next we find Ella seated in her first class stunned that Jamie’s filling in for the legendary English literature professor she’d hung her dreams on.

You’ll laugh and smile page after page at Ella and Jamie’s cut-to-the chase, witty, teasing repartee, full of sexual innuendo. Their off-to-a-terrible-start relationship contrasts with an eccentric trio of lovable friends she instantly hits it off with: Charlie, her dormmate at Magdalen College, one of Oxford’s thirty-eight architectural marvels, with a flair for the overly dramatic and a passion for literature that matches hers; classmate Maggie with pink hair; and their mutual friend Tom, an ex “linguistics, philology, and phonetics” Oxonian Maggie has a crush on but he’s so absent-minded she can’t even get to first base. These fun “Three Musketeers” are with Ella from beginning to end, teaching her the cultural ropes, watching her back.

Oxford University's Beautiful Colleges

We get to know this wacky cast of characters through sharp, erudite, comical dialogue that also conveys interesting tidbits about Oxford’s history, historic sites and hangouts. The novel’s cover is a charming rendition of its famed Bridge of Sighs and Thames River rowing tradition. Later, Jamie’s upper crust parents enter the picture, adding more colorful characters and the aristocratic side.

Oxford Bridge of Sighs
By Brian Jeffery Beggerly [CC BY 2.0]
via Wikimedia Commons

The author’s prose feels real and emotional for another reason. She has deep personal ties to Oxford, explained in an illuminating essay, the kind of About the Book guide you wish all novels included. In a unique study abroad program, Julia Whalen spent her junior year immersed in Oxford, where she “survived the culture shock” and “loved it as fiercely as you can love something that doesn’t love you back.” She’s also a Rhodes finalist and, like Ella, deeply affected by the loss of her father. But she makes it clear this is Ella’s story not hers.

The author labels My Oxford Year a “romantic dramedy.” A term that nicely sums up it feels more lighthearted than it actually is. Ella’s no shrinking violet and her friends are amusingly over-the-top. yet when she discovers Jamie’s secret your heartstrings will be tugged until you find yourself crying. All in all, you’ll come away joyful for an irresistible read lovingly depicting the City of Dreaming Spires. Ella, who narrates, sees Oxford as a “novel come to life.” Similarly, the novelist evokes Oxford as “history with a pulse.”

By SirMetal [Public domain]
from Wikimedia Commons

Ella may not be worldly (England is the first time she’s stepped outside of the US), but she’s clearly more than book smart to have successfully navigated DC politics, the world Ella has come from. A set-up that provides a fundamental conflict in this touching love story for she bears a precise expiration date. Her career is on the rise.

The novel opens just as she approaches the British customs official. Not the ideal time to receive a call from the newly departed White House chief of staff offering her a plume Washington job as education consultant for another rising star, a junior senator and widowed mother of three running for President. A quick thinker in spite of her jet-lagged condition, she finagles a deal to consult from Oxford for the year, which, of course, means romantic entanglements are seriously compromised and she’s on call 24/7. She juggles and manages that intrusive feat like a pro.

Not the case with Jamie who poses an existential threat to her “Oxford destiny” perhaps predictably, but you’ll relish the seduction so who cares. When Jamie gazes at her with his soulful blue eyes, she’s like “a boat caught in a current.” Beyond the physical seduction, she comes to understand how much deeper he is than that. If she wasn’t so rocked and stewed about his taking over the class of her professorial heroine, she might have gleaned Jamie’s poetic qualities simply by the nature of his poetry assignment. Jamie is all about feelings:

“To truly experience a poem, he mutters almost to himself, you need to feel it. A poem is alive, it has a voice. It is a person. Who are they? Why are they?”

Jamie’s lessons are about love and life and how far you’re willing to go for what really matters, if you can even figure out that profound question, dig really deep, and then come to grips with and act on that truth. “If you don’t open yourself up,” Jamie says, “how can you be surprised by life? And if you’re not surprised, what’s the bloody point?” Jamie’s definition of pushing those boundaries wasn’t quite what Ella had in mind.

Whalen describes Jamie’s mesmerizing eyes in a writing style that beautifully shows rather than tells. They are, Ella realizes:

“the color of this swimming hole I used to spend summers at as a kid, at the end of a trail, at the base of a waterfall. The color was so magical I was convinced if I could hold my breath long enough, swim deep enough, pump my legs hard enough, I’d discover the bottom wasn’t a bottom at all, but a portal to another world.”

So too can be said about My Oxford Year. Magical, it takes us to another world. To an ancient city that “belongs to everyone.” Delivering a universal message that speaks truth to us all.


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