My Oxford Year, though fiction, reads like a memoir. It’s told from the point of view of a young American woman named Ella, who wins a Rhodes scholarship to spend a year at Oxford studying literature. Just as she’s about to fly to England, she gets the job offer of her dreams for a position in Washington, D.C. Her new employer agrees to defer until spring, so she can have her “Oxford year,” on the condition that she will be available to consult by phone.
Once Ella lands in Oxford, we get to share in her wonderful sense of culture shock at the juxtaposition of old and new, and the adventure of making new friends. These friends run the gamut from hipsters to chip shop owners to the social elite, and each character is fully drawn and appealing. Along with these new people in her life, Ella’s world is populated by U.S. characters who keep in touch by phone, particularly Ella’s mom and her new employer.
It’s not just your typical “fish out of water” story, though, and Ella’s cultural adjustments are not the focal point of the book. The primary focus is navigating relationships, and living up to our expectations of others and of ourselves. Ella’s mother (present via phone from the U.S.), and a possible new romance (centered at Oxford) provide deeper challenges she must face and resolve.
Every time I thought the plot was getting predictable, there was a twist. The ending was unexpected and bittersweet.
I highly recommend this one. I’ve just finished it and restarted it, because I want to experience its charm again. This one is magical!
Winnie and the Professor