My rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars. This is a review of “Oxford Messed Up” by Andrea Kayne Kaufman.
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Grant Place Press (November 17, 2011)
Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
Having read on Amazon some praising customer reviews of the novel “Oxford Messed Up” by Andrea Kayne Kaufman, I had wanted to dive into this book for some time. I actually waited for over a year and a half for this book to be purchased by my local library, but, alas, that never happened. So I finally caved in and recently bought the paperback version of “Oxford Messed Up.” Unfortunately, all of that waiting culminated in what turned out to be a rather disappointing read for me.
The Premise. The author Andrea Kayne Kaufman started with what I thought was a great idea for the premise of this story: a bright but shy American girl, Gloria, suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder (“OCD”), travels to Oxford College in England for post-graduate studies in women’s poetry. Gloria is assigned an apartment with a private bathroom, but because of an administrative mistake, she ends up in an apartment that shares a common bathroom with another student. That other student is Henry, an English boy, whom many would consider a slob and a loser. A recovering drug addict and alcoholic, Henry is pretty much the very definition of chaos, from his broken relationship with his father, to his apparent indifference to his education and future, to his dorm room strewn with clothes and papers. So there it is…the OCD girl, with her extremist, perfectionistic need for unrealistic order in all things, forced daily to share a bathroom with a boy who seems her complete opposite—an utterly irresponsible slob immersed in inner and outer chaos.
“Oxford Messed Up” is the story of how Gloria and Henry come to know and understand each other through their common use of that bathroom, by their shared adoration of the singer Van Morrison, and because of their knack at clever banter about ideas, big and small.
The Writing is Lacking. I just shake my head, because, darn it, this could have been a really great book. Its premise, as I described above, seems intriguing, and provides the foundation for a promising book, don’t you think? The characters are initially set up to be fascinating and engrossing. The lack of good writing, though, is what highjacks this great story idea and potential for memorable characters. There’s a flat and clipped tone to Kaufman’s writing, so that even though the words aren’t monosyllables, it feels like I’m reading something on a fourth-grader level. Although all of Kaufman’s sentences aren’t simple subject-verb in construction, I always came away feeling as if they were. Over and over again.
After mulling over why I was so irritated by this book, I realized it’s because of Kaufman’s stilted style—her writing comes off as academic and too formal. Interestingly, the bio of Kaufman on the book’s jacket notes that she is chair of a department at DePaul University…I have to wonder if all that academia that Kaufman is most certainly immersed in and surrounded by unfortunately rubbed off too much in Kaufman’s fiction-writing.
In any event, never in “Oxford Messed Up” did I sense an intuitive sense of syntax, or a natural rhythm and flow. I can’t tell you how many times while reading “Oxford Messed Up” that I gritted my teeth and grumbled to myself about Kaufman’s forced and prim writing style.
Here are few excerpts from the book as examples:
She recalled seeing a fireplace in the bathroom as well. Oliver hated fireplaces. Being a germaphobe, they were too unsanitary and dirty for real use or comfort. But there was a secret part of Gloria that really liked fireplaces, or at least the idea of them. She thought a fireplace was a metaphor for something important, though she just couldn’t remember what.”
Gloria shook her head and then continued to take in the ambience as Henry focused on the stack of Van Morrison records in front of him. He was determined to find what he was looking for. He desperately wanted to show it to Gloria and hoped it has not been sold since the last time he checked on it. He was greatly relieved when he found his treasure, a messed-up old album with a frayed and torn cover.”
Margo stormed through the gates of St. Cross College, huffing and puffing, trying to fill her lungs with more rage, like she was blowing up a balloon. But when she reached the sundial in the center of the quad, she sighed as she collapsed onto the nearest teak bench. She could no longer hold onto the air or anger—the untied balloon whizzed and swirled and shrunk toward its inevitable reunion with the ground.”
I always sensed while reading Kaufman’s descriptions and narration that she was “telling” to the reader and not “showing.” Initially, I tried to second-guess my dislike of Kaufman’s writing style. I told myself that maybe the author wrote in this style to convey Gloria’s unrealistically simplistic and narrow view of the world. Nope…the more I read, the more I realized my initial intuition was correct. Kaufman’s arid and stilted style and tone remain unchanging throughout “Oxford Messed Up,” no matter which character’s point of view the author is writing from. Sadly, the more I read, the more I realized that Kaufman’s writing skills simply don’t match the fine story idea she had and the wonderful characters she could have created for the reader.
Potentially Vivid Characters. And yes, as to wonderful characters, I can only say “could have created.” If an author cannot articulate in an engaging voice and in a seamless, flowing rhythm the thoughts and words of her characters, then it’s impossible for me the reader to immerse myself in the head and heart of the characters written about, to empathize and identify with those characters, or to care what happens to those characters. That’s particularly a shame in this case, because, again, not only did Kaufman invent unique characters who had such potential for being memorable and vivid, but she also invented a perfect setting and circumstances for these characters that should have been captivating for the reader. Unfortunately, I was not captivated.
References to Van Morrison. A fan of Van Morrison’s music might find “Oxford Messed Up” appealing. Despite their differences, Gloria and Henry practically worship Van Morrison’s music, and so this novel is chock full of references to Morrison’s albums and songs, many of which are quoted in full. I don’t particularly care for Morrison’s music, although I do find some of his words poetic. As the novel wore on though, the multiple Morrison musical references felt repetitive, and I grew tired and bored of them.
The OCD. Gloria’s issues with OCD seem real, and I think Kaufman does a laudable job of making Gloria’s condition seem horribly constricting and debilitating. Again though, Kaufman overdoes it and becomes far too repetitive, this time with the words of “Oliver,” Gloria’s inner OCD voice. Kaufman uses far too many lines each time that “Oliver” decides to go on one of his many harsh and unrelenting rants. Here’s one excerpt that’s representative of “Oliver’s” words throughout this book:
Look at all those vile people sneezing germs, coughing germs, and picking germs out of their noses. And those disgusting fat slobs coming out of the airport bathrooms. Vile, fetid, heinous, germ-infested airport and airplane bathrooms. No public bathrooms for you….”
…and on and on. The reader can get it with just a line or two, and doesn’t need to deal with “Oliver’s” almost mindless ranting ad nauseam.
A Good Movie or Play? I might not like the writing style of “Oxford Messed Up,” but because of its great premise and potential for endearing and engrossing characters, I would like to see this novel made into a movie. This assumes, of course, that broad discretion is given to a really good screenplay writer. Because the characters are few and most of the scenes take place in relatively close quarters, I believe that “Oxford Messed Up” also might translate into a fascinating stage play. Again, it would take the liberties and know-how of a deft playwright to convert this book to entertaining theater.
Epilogue Was a Mistake. I won’t write any spoilers here, so I’ll just say that this novel’s epilogue was completely unnecessary. I’ll have to agree with the book reviewer Persnickety Snark when discussing epilogues, who says,
A badly written and/or unnecessary epilogue is a garnish on a plate that has already gone cold – limp and trying to camouflage the main. Personally, I don’t remember epilogues unless they’re bad and I think that should be the case. An effective epilogue gently completes the story, it shouldn’t declare itself with a bang…”
Epilogues often don’t work, and neither does this book’s. All it did was make “Oxford Messed Up” even more messed up.
Conclusion. By now, I’m sure you’ve figured out that I’m not recommending you read the novel “Oxford Messed Up” by Kaufman. However, if you’re fascinated by characters with OCD, you might appreciate this book. If you love Van Morrison’s music, then sure, this novel might be worth reading. Maybe…assuming that you can ignore the off-putting style of the author’s writing.
I don’t relish writing negative reviews, and I so badly wanted to like the novel “Oxford Messed Up” with its potentially fascinating characters and their unlikely situation with each other. But Ms. Kaufman’s stilted and awkward sentences, the overload of references to Van Morrison, and the lengthy and repetitive rantings of “Oliver,” were all irritants that grated on me and left me practically gnashing my teeth in frustration.Ultimately, I never managed to immerse myself in the story of Gloria and Henry, and never really cared what happened to them. Again, an excellent screenwriter or playwright just might could salvage “Oxford Messed Up” by Andrea Kayne Kaufman, and finally allow her story and characters to shine like they should.
My rating: 2 and ½ out of 5 stars.