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Thank You for My Oxford Year

Former child-actor-turned-audiobook-narrator breaks the mold and pens two remarkable novels.

Julia Whelan Books
My Oxford Year & Thank You for Listening Book Covers

Title

My Oxford Year & Thank You for Listening

Author(s)

Julia Whelan

Genre

Contemporary Fiction | Romance | Romantic Comedy | Women’s Fiction

I discovered Julia Whelan during a long run. While listening to the audiobook version of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Malibu Rising, I noticed a dynamic synergy between the author’s words and Julia Whelan’s voice. Not since sapphic-favorites narrator Abby Craden and author Harper Bliss have I experienced a better author-narrator union. But when I found out in an interview between Whelan and Reid at the end of the audiobook Forever Interrupted (another Jenkins Reid novel narrated by Julia Whelan) that Whelan was also an author, I was excited to read her work. I was on holiday and had just finished the library book I had brought—the timing was serendipitous.

My Oxford Year

Brimming with hope and excitement for her year abroad, Rhodes scholar Ella from Ohio packs up her American ideals and embarks on an adventure to earn a master’s degree in Victorian-era English Literature. But before setting foot inside a single Oxford lecture hall, Ella endures a series of blunders that pit her against her posh prat professor, Jaime Davenport, turning her short career as a graduate student at Oxford topsy-turvy. 

Ella, unable or unwilling to admit it, is desperate for a fresh start. She’s planned her escape from her mother’s clutches since age 13. And while her meticulous planning may have paid off, it all brilliantly falls apart, thanks to Whelan’s seductive storytelling.

An American without subterfuge––and a veritable fish out of water––Ella initially falls prey to her lack of understanding of English academics, where syllabi are nonexistent, and the all-too-independent education system threatens to overwhelm the Ohioan. Underestimating the simplicity of her first assignment—pick a poem and “tell me how it makes you feel”—Ella dissects, extrapolates, and analyzes her chosen poem the way one would a DNA sample. When Professor Posh Prat summons her for a tute, praise for her cleverly written paper—turned in ahead of time—is not on the agenda. Instead, Jaime informs Ella of her monumental disregard for the assignment. “But how does it make you feel?” he asks her. Delving into one’s feelings, or lack thereof, is the novel’s central theme, as Ella consistently struggles to ignore hers.

From the outset, Whelan’s debut novel has all the makings of a high-stakes chess match, engrossing the reader as the author places her set pieces here and there, cleverly structuring the intricacies of Ella’s goal: earn a master’s at Oxford and leave. Whelan’s methodical narrative approach sets two possible love interests for Ella at either end of the chessboard, and at the center of the board lies a high-profile consulting job for an American presidential candidate. Then there’s the strategic placement of Cecelia, a beautiful rival seemingly jockeying for Jaime’s affection and Ella’s relationship with her mother at the margin. But do the chess pieces come together for the remarkable win? Yes, indeed. 

This story triumphs, as its misfit characters’ subplots combine with the author’s profoundly romantic writing style:

“Blame the alcohol, but this moment seems to lengthen, as if I’m consciously making a memory. I leisurely watch his back as he opens the door under the misty glow of the antique street lamp, his damp hair curling against the wool collar of his coat, his broad shoulders and tapered waist, the clacking heel of a well-made brogue pivoting on the wet pavement as he turns back. I look up to find his eyes on me, his hand outstretched. ‘Shall we?’”

Chapter after chapter, Whelan’s words are viscerally poetic. 

In a meeting with Davenport, Ella is caught up in him—in his essence. She’s mesmerized as he apologizes to her for an earlier mishap: “…His voice makes me feel as if I’m lying in a hammock.” I leave that passage feeling a light breeze on my face.

As magical as they are alone, Whelan’s written words are even more vibrant when listening to her narrate them. There’s no way the voice in my head can match Whelan’s knack for perfectly delivered accents. In MOY, she works through an array of British accents without so much as a pause for breath. The result is uncanny, an earnest and entertaining performance.

Kudos to Whelan, who recently announced the film adaptation of the book for Netflix and Temple Hill Entertainment. It’s a fitting addition to my obsession with this story.

Thank You for Listening

Former actor and current award-winning audiobook narrator Sewanee (Swan-knee) Chester has a dilemma. A lucrative deal comes her way to co-narrate one last romance novel—it’s enough money to subsidize her grandmother’s care at an expensive assisted living facility. The problem is Sewanee doesn’t narrate romance anymore. Romance sells the fallacy of happily ever after, and she’s not buying it anymore. But when her grandmother’s health worsens, and the facility needs to transition her into their expensive memory care unit, Sewanee relents and takes the job. 

It seems to be a straightforward partnership with the industry’s leading male voiceover talent: narrate Cassanova, LLC, the last work of deceased bestselling romance novelist June French. But soon, the job sets in motion a chain of events that leads Sewanee on a whirlwind journey of self-discovery and acceptance to Venice, Italy.

As in her previous novel, Whelan writes her characters with witty banter and self-deprecating humor. She doesn’t take her characters too seriously, but neither do they: “A stunningly average woman the wrong side of thirty on her way to Vagas, wearing an eye patch, sitting in a broken seat, listening to porn.” These are necessary comedic reliefs while navigating some of the novel’s heavier topics, particularly around Blah Blah, Sewanee’s grandmother, and her memory lapses. These episodes are nothing short of heart-wrenching and emotional, but Blah Blah manages to steal the show every time.

The elegance of the novel is in the dynamic characters. Whelan has written a multi-dimensional main character with flaws, insecurities, and deeply traumatic wounds. She’s a supportive friend, passionate lover, caring granddaughter, and hard-working narrator. But Sewanee creates a convenient existence for herself with a messy home/work-life imbalance. She lives in Mark’s (her boss’s) guesthouse casita. Her arrangement with him, wherein she manages the recording studio in the main house for free rent, enables her to record her narrations whenever a booth is available. It’s a seemingly perfect arrangement until she bumps into a fellow actor/ex-bedmate/narrator whose interest in purchasing the house intrigues Mark and threatens to skew Sewanee’s diligently structured life. 

As Sewanee’s troubles mount, Whelan’s cast of supporting characters double as mirror-holders, forcing Sewanee to face her past, accept her present, and move forward toward her future. Moreover, Whelan does this with delightfully funny, poignantly cleverly written prose: “‘Eventually, don’t know when, but eventually? You’re gonna have to stop thinking you’re nothing more than the damaged version of yourself.’”

At its core, the novel is about acceptance. Whether it’s accepting our failures, our parents’ limitations, or the hand we’re dealt, the narrative forces us to examine our defects, move past our restraints, and find a happy medium between happily ever after and apocalypse. Ultimately, the novel leaves us hopeful.

Like My Oxford Year, the Thank You For Listening audiobook is narrated in Whelan’s crisp voice, showcasing a broader range. She riffs off countless lilts, tones, emotions, accents, and cadences—Irish, Bostonian, Southern, young, old, ailing, ecstatic, grumpy, angry, solemn, lustful, male, female—all in one impressive sweep. She interprets these characters so distinctly that one might think she’s hired an array of artists to record them—but it’s all her.

Aside from Whelan’s sardonic writing style and penchant for beginning every chapter with a quote—poetry lines in MOY and fictional June French quotes in TYFL—the two novels are quite distinct. The most apparent difference is the first-person narration in the former and the third-person narration in the latter. MOY is about a woman finishing her studies while embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. TYFL is about a woman experiencing a career and love life shake-up. Despite their tangible differences, Whelan’s use of honest, bare-bones language to portray her characters is consistent. These endearing, stand-alone novels take the reader on a refreshing trip to a moment where both Ella and Sewanee must set aside their reticence and move past seemingly insurmountable obstacles to attain their own “happy for now.”

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About the author(s).

Julia Whelan is a novelist, screenwriter, actor, entrepreneur, and award-winning audiobook narrator of more than 500 titles, including her novels. She founded a new audiobook platform, Audiobrary, that promises to offer its human-only narrators royalties for their performances and the audience a fresh listing experience. Her new project, Casanova LLC, can be pre-ordered now on Audiobrary. Whelan is also a Grammy-nominated audiobook director, a former writing tutor, a half-decent amateur baker, and a certified tea sommelier.

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