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Old themes are turned into newly minted pleasures in this Waugh-like and expertly done first novel about American students at Oxford and a rare-manuscripts con job that comes close to embarrassing the venerable university. Lafayette Jackson is an unassuming and blameless American historian whose recent book on the antebellum South has led to a visiting lectureship at Oxford--although, by novel's end, it will be revealed that her work (unbeknownst to her) has been based wholly on forged documents: and, further, that other reputedly rare papers she hopes (with her risibly crass husband, the real culprit) to sell to the university are forgeries as well. In author Rosenheim's hands (he's an American living in Oxford), however, these revelations are made with nothing if not subtlety and grace, woven unpretentiously into the smaller and more personal concerns of his characters' lives. As narrator, there is Rhodes scholar James, from Ann Arbor, who is on the rebound from an ended affair in America and on his way, as the story unfolds, to a new love that will keep him in England, and at Oxford, perhaps for good (provided he can pass his exams). James' best friend, Wilmarth McCandles, on the other hand (he's from Louisiana), will go back home at the end of his studies, heading for marriage (willingly) and career (with trepidation and uncertainty). Touching the student-lives of James and McCandles are not only Lafayette Jackson herself (and her boozy, criminally-inclined husband) but other characters limned almost invariably with a succulent economy and unflinching satirist's eye, from tippling housekeeper to snobbish don, from the politically ambitious American Charlie Bicker to the class-driven Britisher Newcastle, the madly eccentric student who first (however mistakenly) sniffs the trail of the forgeries. A kind of American-eye Lucky Jim with two dashes of Brideshead, mixed under the spirit of the American expatriates: pleasure from start to finish.

Pub Date: April 20th, 1988
Publisher: Godine