MY OXFORD YEAR, one of my favorite books so far this year, released this week, and it was written by one of my favorite audiobook narrators. (Kirkus gave it a lovely review - here - which included this: "Whelan has created a beautiful, romantic story that focuses on big ideas—love, death, poetry, and what really matters in the end."
Julia Whelan began her entertainment career as a notable child actor, but after graduating from Middlebury College with a year abroad in Oxford, Julia connected with a college friend’s mother who encouraged her to give audiobook narration a try. She has won many awards and accolades for her narration, including an Audie for her narration of Nora Roberts’ The Witness and multiple Voice Arts awards, plus she was named Audible's Narrator of the Year (2014).
I was so fascinated by the idea of Whelan as an author, I wanted to know about the story and the backstory, and so I caught up with her in a phone interview to get the scoop.
While this is her first published novel, Whelan has been writing for years, and is an accomplished screenwriter. Whelan’s work on MY OXFORD YEAR began when she was hired to work on an existing screenplay set in Oxford. As she says in her lovely P.S. essay at the back of the book, “for the sake of brevity, we got the job.” For a variety of reasons, that led to the opportunity to turn the premise of the screenplay into a fully-fledged, stand-alone novel.
Both in our conversation and in that reflective essay, Whelan’s gratitude and love for the project are palpable. But more on that later. First:
About MY OXFORD YEAR:
Set amid the breathtaking beauty of Oxford, this sparkling debut novel tells the unforgettable story about a determined young woman eager to make her mark in the world and the handsome man who introduces her to an incredible love that will irrevocably alter her future - perfect for fans of JoJo Moyes and Nicholas Sparks.
American Ella Durran has had the same plan for her life since she was 13: 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 is 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.
Whelan became involved with the project thanks to her connection to the L.A. chapter of the Oxford alumni association. “It didn’t start out as my story. But there were aspects to it that felt very personal to me, and once the project moved from the screenplay to a novel”— she briefly discusses that in her essay too —“then working on the book turned out to be a chance to work through some of my own grief and come to peace with some of the choices I’d made that felt difficult at the time."
After graduating from college, Whelan had a trajectory in mind. “I’d taken time for my education and was ready to head back to my life as an actor. But the professional landscape had changed drastically, and it was a grind, a hustle. I was hustling in a million different directions. Then my father died suddenly, and I became responsible for my grandfather and his lovely wife. For the next three years I cared for them long-distance and helped them prepare for the end of their lives. That definitely derailed my plans. However, I realized I wanted to be there for them, that life and death were so much bigger than any career ambitions I’d had. It wasn’t what I’d asked for or expected, but it turned out to be this incredibly rewarding experience.
“So when I was tasked with writing a novel from that Oxford-based screenplay, it turned out to be a journey of processing the grief as well as exploring Ella’s similar path. Her whole life she’d been rewarded for being bright and doing what she’s good at, but in the end she needs to ask herself if the rewards—in her case, this amazing fast-track political job as a consultant to a woman who could conceivably become the next President of the United States—are what she really wants, even though it’s what she’s been striving for her whole life. Especially right now, when spending time with Jamie takes away from her job, and the thought of staying with him in England absolutely means closing the door on that huge opportunity.”
The end-product is a graceful, lyrical yet entertaining exploration of love that grows even when the two lovers don’t want it to, and what happens when life throws life-changing (and threatening) curves at them.
The start of the story focuses on a blossoming romance that includes charm, humor and wit as well as typical romantic obstacles: other romantic interests, exes, disapproving parents. Ella and her support crew are eccentric and can be angsty—as young adults are wont to be—but always in authentic and generally appealing ways. Unrequited love, romantic antics, late nights drinking wine, parsing through the day’s triumphs and disappointments.
Through it all is Ella’s determination not to get involved with anyone, especially Jamie. Except that he’s beautiful and smart, the most attractive man she’s ever met. Their affair slips into love long before they admit it, but by then their lives have been changed. By then, it’s not just about love and commitment. Jamie is sick. Their relationship becomes an obstacle to treatment, then a question of quality of life.
Whelan considers the book to be about one young woman’s path to understanding her heart’s true desires. “So often we kind of fall into things, and in many ways, Ella has. Fabulous things, by almost any measure. But now she has to look. She has to pay attention. She has to ask herself what she really wants. Not what she thinks she wants. Or what she thinks she’s supposed to want. It was an enlightening and empowering experience for her, and, in the end, for me too.”
Whelan is a beautiful, keenly perceptive writer and clearly her own brushes with loss and hard choices have left her deftly able to navigate the intense emotions, positive and negative, that these characters and this story depend on. This may be a debut novel, but it is as sophisticated and elegant as you’ll find in mainstream fiction.
When I said as much to Whelan, congratulating her on such an impressive departure, she modestly and graciously laid much of her facility at the feet of all the wonderful authors’ books she’s narrated. “My experience as an actor has always kept me close to story and character. My job as a narrator enabled me to read broadly and I know that the many books I’ve narrated have helped me understand voice, and gave me the confidence to find my own in telling this story. Acting and literature share many goals, including the hope to engender empathy. This book, writing it, narrating it, sifting through the characters and bringing them to life—everything about it has helped me become a better writer and to look at the world differently, including my own experiences. That’s a gift.”
I love this exquisite, captivating book, and I can’t wait to see what else this author has in store. Until then, I’ll find her in some audiobooks. (She has a powerful voice in all sorts of ways!)