American Ella Durran has had the same plan for her life since she was thirteen: Study at Oxford. At 24, she’s finally made it to England on a Rhodes Scholarship when she’s offered an unbelievable position in a rising political star’s presidential campaign. With the promise that she’ll work remotely and return to DC at the end of her Oxford year, she’s free to enjoy her Once in a Lifetime Experience. That is, until a smart-mouthed local who is too quick with his tongue and his car ruins her shirt and her first day. When Ella discovers that her English literature course will be taught by none other than that same local, Jamie Davenport, she thinks for the first time that Oxford might not be all she’s envisioned. But a late-night drink reveals a connection she wasn’t anticipating finding and what begins as a casual fling soon develops into something much more when Ella learns Jamie has a life-changing secret. Immediately, Ella is faced with a seemingly impossible decision: turn her back on the man she’s falling in love with to follow her political dreams or be there for him during a trial neither are truly prepared for. As the end of her year in Oxford rapidly approaches, Ella must decide if the dreams she’s always wanted are the same ones she’s now yearning for.
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!
Home-Thoughts, from Abroad – Robert Browning, 1845
The customs agent beckons the person in front of me and I approach the big red line, absently toeing the curling tape, resting my hand on the gleaming pipe railing. No adjustable ropes at Heathrow, apparently; these lines must always be long if they require permanent demarcation.
My phone rings. I glance down. I don’t know the number.
“Hello?” I answer.
“Is this Eleanor Durran?”
“This is Gavin Brookdale.”
My first thought is that this is a prank call. Gavin Brookdale just stepped down as White House Chief of Staff. He’s run every major political campaign of the last 20 years. He’s a legend. He’s my idol. He’s calling me?
“Sorry, I-I’m here,” I stammer. “I’m just –
“Have you heard of Janet Wilkes?”
Have I heard of – Janet Wilkes is the junior senator from Florida and a dark horse candidate for President. She’s 45, lost her husband twelve years ago in Afghanistan, raised three kids on a teacher’s salary while somehow putting herself through law school, and then ran the most impressive grassroots senatorial campaign I’ve ever seen. She also has the hottest human-rights-attorney boyfriend I’ve ever seen, but that’s beside the point. She’s a Gold Star wife who’s a progressive firebrand on social issues. We’ve never seen anyone like her on the national stage before. The first debate isn’t for another two weeks, on October 13, but voters seem to love her: she’s polling third in a field of twelve. Candidate Number Two is not long for the race; a Case of the Jilted Mistress(es). Number One, however, happens to be the current Vice-President, George Hillerson, who Gavin Brookdale (if the Washington gossip mill is accurate) loathes. Still, even the notoriously mercurial Brookdale wouldn’t back a losing horse like Wilkes just to spite the presumptive nominee. If nothing else, Gavin Brookdale likes to win. “Of course I’ve heard of her.”
“She read your piece in The Atlantic. We both did. ‘The Art of Education and the Death of the Thinking American Electorate.’ We were impressed.”
“Thank you,” I gush. “It was something I felt was missing from the discourse –”
“What you wrote was a philosophy. It wasn’t a policy.”
This brings me up short. “I understand why you’d think that, but I –”
“Don’t worry, I know you have the policy chops. I know you won Ohio for Janey Bennett. The 138th for Carl Moseley. You’re a talented young lady, Eleanor.”
“Mr. Brookdale –”
“Call me Gavin.”
“Then call me Ella. No one calls me Eleanor.”
“Alright, Ella, would you like to be the education consultant for Wilkes’ campaign?”
“Yes!” I bleat. “Yes, of course! She’s incredible –”
“Great. Come down to my office today and we’ll read you in.”
All the breath leaves my body. I can’t seem to get it back. “So… here’s the thing. I-I’m in England.”
“Fine, when you get back.”
“… I get back in June.”
“Are you consulting over there?”
“No, I have a… I got a Rhodes and I’m doing a –”
Gavin chortles. “I was a Rhodie.”
“I know, Sir.”
“What are you studying?”
“English Language and Literature 1830 to 1914.”
“Because I want to?” Why does it come out as a question?
“You don’t need it. Getting the Rhodes is what matters. Doing it is meaningless, especially in Literature from 1830 to 19-whatever. The only reason you wanted it was to help you get that life-changing political job, right? Well, I’m giving that to you. So come home and let’s get down to business.”
A customs agent – stone-faced, turbaned, impressive beard – waves me forward. I take one step over the line, but hold a finger up to him. He’s not even looking at me. “Gavin, can I call –”
“She’s going to be the nominee, Ella. It’s going to be the fight of my life and I need all hands – including yours – on deck, but we’re going to do it.”
He’s delusional. But, my God, what if he’s right? A shiver of excitement snakes through me. “Gavin –”
“Listen, I’ve always backed the winning candidate, but I have never backed someone who I personally, deeply, wanted to win.”
“Miss?” Now the customs agent looks at me.
Gavin chuckles at my silence. “I don’t want to have to convince you, if you don’t feel –”
“I can work from here.” Before he can argue, I continue, “I will make myself available at all hours. I will make Wilkes my priority.” Behind me, a bloated, red-faced businessman reeking of gin, moves to squeeze around me. I head him off, grabbing the railing, saying into the phone, “I had two jobs in college while volunteering in field offices and coordinating multiple city council runs. I worked two winning congressional campaigns last year while helping to shape the education budget for Ohio. I can certainly consult for you while reading books and writing about them occasionally.”
“Miss!” the customs agent barks. “Hang up the phone or step aside.” I hold my finger up higher (as if visibility is the problem) and widen my stance over the line.
“What’s your date certain for coming home?” Gavin asks.
“June 11th. I already have a ticket. Seat 32A.”
“Miss!” The customs agent and the man bark at me.
I look down at the red line between my sprawled feet. “Gavin, I’m straddling the North Atlantic right now. I literally have one foot in England and one in America and if I don’t hang up they’ll –”
“I’ll call you back.”
What does that mean? What do I do? Numbly, I hurry to the immigration window, coming face to face with the dour agent. I adopt my best beauty-pageant smile and speak in the chagrined, gee-whiz tone I know he expects. “I am so sorry, Sir, my sincerest apologies. My Mom’s –”
“Passport.” He’s back to not looking at me. I’m getting the passive-aggressive treatment now. I hand over my brand new passport with the crisp, un-stamped pages. “Purpose of visit?”
“For how long will you be in the country?”
I pause. I glance down at the dark, unhelpful screen of my phone. “I… I don’t know.”
Now he looks up at me.
“A year,” I say. Screw it. “An academic year.”
“Oxford.” Saying the word out loud cuts through everything else. My smile becomes genuine. He asks me more questions, and I suppose I answer, but all I can think is:
I’m here. This is actually happening. Everything has come together according to plan.
He stamps my passport, hands it back, lifts his hand to the line.
When I was thirteen I read an article in Seventeen Magazine called, “My Once in a Lifetime Experience,” and it was a personal account of an American girl’s year abroad at Oxford. The classes, the students, the parks, the pubs, even the chip shop (“pictured, bottom left”) seemed like another world. Like slipping through a wormhole into a universe where things were ordered and people were dignified and the buildings were older than my entire country. I suppose thirteen is an important age in every girl’s life, but for me, growing up in the middle of nowhere, with a family that had fallen apart? I needed something to hold onto. I needed inspiration. I needed hope. The girl who wrote the article had been transformed. Oxford had unlocked her life and I was convinced that it would be the key to mine.
So I made a plan: get to Oxford.
After going through more customs checkpoints, I follow signs for The Central Bus Terminal and find an automatic ticket kiosk. The “£” sign before the amount looks so much better, more civilized, more historical than the American dollar sign, which always seems overly suggestive to me. Like it should be flashing in sequential neon lights above a strip club. $ – $ – $. Girls! Girls! Girls!
The kiosk’s screen asks me if I want a discounted return ticket (I assume that means round trip), and I pause. My flight back to Washington is on June 11th, barely sixteen hours after the official end of Trinity term. I have no plans to return to the states before then, instead staying here over the two long vacations (in December and March) and traveling. In fact, I already have my December itinerary all planned. I purchase the return ticket, then cross to a bench to wait for the next bus.
My phone dings and I look down. An email from The Rhodes Foundation reminding me about the orientation tomorrow morning.
For whatever reason, out of all the academic scholarships in the world, most people seem to have heard of The Rhodes. It’s not the only prestigious scholarship to be had, but it’s the one that I wanted. Every year, America sends 32 of its most overachieving, uber-competitive, social-climbing, do-gooder nerds to Oxford. It’s mostly associated with geniuses, power-players, global leaders. Let me demystify this: to get a Rhodes, you have to be slightly unhinged. You have to have a stellar GPA, excel in multiple courses of study, be socially entrepreneurial, charity-minded, and athletically proficient (though the last time I did anything remotely athletic I knocked out Jimmy Brighton’s front tooth with a foul ball, so take that tenet with a grain of salt). I could have gone after other scholarships. There’s the Marshal, the Fulbright, the Watson, but the Rhodies are my people. They’re the planners.
The other finalist selected from my district (a Math/Econ/Classics triple-major and Olympic archer who had discovered that applying Game Theory to negotiations with known terrorists makes the intel 147% more reliable) told me, “I’ve been working toward getting a Rhodes since Freshman year.” To which I replied, “Me, too.” He clarified, “Of high school.” To which I replied, “Me, too.”
While, yes, the Rhodes is a golden ticket to Oxford, it’s also a built-in network and the means to my political future. It ensures that people who would have otherwise discounted me – this unconnected girl from the soybean fields of Ohio – will take a second, serious look. People like Gavin Brookdale.
Going after things the way I do, being who I am, has alienated my entire hometown and most of my extended family. My mom hadn’t gone to college and my dad had dropped out after two years because he’d thought it was more important to change the world than learn about it, and there I was, this achievement machine making everyone around it vaguely uncomfortable. She thinks she’s better than everyone else.
Honestly, I don’t. But I do think I’m better than what everyone, besides my dad, told me I was.
I wake up in a moment of panic when the bus I’d boarded back at Heathrow jerks to a stop, sending the book on my lap to the floor. Hastily retrieving it, I force my sleepy eyes to take in the view from the floor-to-ceiling window in front of me. I chose the seat on the upper level at the very front, wanting to devour every bit of English countryside on the way to Oxford. Then I slept through it.
Pushing through the fog in my head, I peer outside. A dingy bus stop in front of a generic cell phone store. I look for a street sign, trying to get my bearings. My info packet from the college said to get off at the Queens Lane stop on High Street. This can’t be it. I glance behind me and no one on the bus is moving to get off, so I settle back into my seat.
The bus starts up again, and I breathe deeply, trying to wake up. I jam the book into my backpack. I’d wanted to finish it before my first class tomorrow, but I can’t focus. I was too excited to eat or sleep on the plane. My empty stomach and all-nighter is catching up to me. The time difference is catching up to me. The last twelve years spent striving for this moment is catching up to me.
Inside my jacket pocket, my phone vibrates. I pull it out and see the same number from earlier. I take a deep breath and preemptively answer, “Gavin, listen, I was thinking, let’s do a trial period of, say, a month, and if you feel that I need to be there –”
My throat tightens. “Please, just give me thirty days to prove that –”
“It’s fine. I made it work. Just remember who comes first.”
Elation breaks through the fog. My fist clenches in victory and my smile reaches all the way to my temples. “Absolutely,” I say in my most professional voice. “Thank you so much for this opportunity. You won’t be disappointed.”
“I know that. That’s why I hired you. What’s your fee? FYI: there’s no money.”
There’s never any money. I tell him my fee anyway and we settle on something that I can live with. The Rhodes is paying my tuition and lodging and I get a small stipend for living expenses on top of that. I decide right then that what Gavin’s going to pay me will go directly into my travel budget.
“Now, go,” he says, “Have fun. You’ve clearly earned it. There’s a pub you should visit in the center of town. The Turf. See where one of your fellow Rhodes Scholars – a young William Jefferson Clinton – ‘didn’t’ inhale.”
“Ha, got it. Will do.”
“Just take your phone with you. Your phone is an appendage, not an accessory. Okay?”
I nod even though he can’t see me. “Okay. It’s a plan.” Just as I say this, the bus rounds a bend and there she is:
Beyond a picturesque bridge, the narrow two-lane road continues into a bustling main street, lined on each side by buildings with a hodge-podge of architectural styles, no room to breathe between them. Like the crowd at the finish line of a marathon, these buildings cheer me on, welcoming me to their city. Some are topped with sloped, slate roofs, others with battlements. 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 38 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.
My Oxford Year was, in turn, a lot of fun to read (many quietish snort-laughs occurred in the reading, especially in the first third or so), heartwrenching (gah! So upsetting when unexpected), inspirational, and cautiously optimistic. I loved watching Ella trying to navigate her new-temporary-life in Oxford, making friends (or not…? or maybe she actually is), struggling to decode British slang (in her first real conversation post-customs she realizes she’d “understood maybe half of what he’d said”) and trying not to be run over on her first day there (they drive on the “wrong” side of the road! The struggle is real) As an English major and two-time graduate student, I was alternately amazed and appalled that Ella, a poli sci/history major had blithely decided to do a masters at Oxford in English literature from 1830 to 1914 just because. Who does that???
Fortunately for my sanity, Ms. Whelan has Ella wonder the same thing. More than once.
It’s clear from their meet-not-so-cute in the road and chip shop that Ella and Jamie are going to be the main item in the book, and for the most part a lot more time is spent on their not-a-relationship/relationship than is on Ella’s actually going to classes/working on schoolwork/working the actual long-distance job she has in addition to going to Oxford, which felt a bit off balance, considering. The author’s note at the end also reveals that the book is based on an original screenplay written by someone else (currently in development as Oxford), so perhaps some of those choices were made with more of an eye toward telling the story on screen instead of on the page? Either way, it didn’t bother me overmuch–I’m more a relationship girl than a day-to-day IRL one–but it is worth noting. The story is reminiscent of Bridget Jones’s Diary in that there’s a lot more hanging out with friends and spending time with the opposite sex than work, equally as British-y but far less smoking and sex and none of the body image issues.
Just about the same amount of alcohol consumption, though. 😉
I have fond memories of Ms. Whelan from Once and Againand really enjoyed her audio performance of Gone Girl(thanks, SB Sarah for your super fun and informative interview with Julia on your podcast and overall I liked her voice here. I highlighted several passages as I read, and will be very interested to see how many of them show up in the film as well–going to see it when it comes out is definitely not a question. It will happen.
One quote in particular really spoke to me:
…she–by her very presence–assures me that, in the end, it will be okay. She’s still here, isn’t she?
I read that and my whole being said yes. Obviously someone out there gets it. I don’t know if the author of the novel or the screenplay came up with that exact wording, but whoever you are, you are speaking my language right there. Ce and I are soul sisters, and I thank you both for writing her.
If you enjoy contemporary women’s fiction/new adult/fish-out-of-water stories with delicious posh prat heroes, by all means, give My Oxford Year a read–you probably won’t be sorry. But definitely have a tissue (or two–boxes, maybe) handy.
Rating: 4 stars / B+
I voluntarily reviewed an Advance Reader Copy of this book.
About the author:
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.