It is the 1970s and Oxford’s male institutions are finally opening their doors to women. Sarah Addleshaw – young, spirited and keen to prove her worth – begins the term as the first female academic at her college. She is, in fact, its only female ‘Fellow’.
Impulsive love affairs – with people, places and the ideas in her head – beset Sarah throughout her first exhilarating year as a don, but it is the Reading Party that has the most dramatic impact.
Asked to accompany the first mixed group of students on the annual retreat in Cornwall, Sarah finds herself illicitly drawn to one of them, the suave American Tyler. Torn between professional integrity and personal feelings, she faces her biggest challenge to date.
A fresh view of Oxford, seen through the eyes of a young woman historian appointed to a male college in 1976, who tells her own story with wit and feeling in this original and charming novel.
In 1992 I went on a Reading Retreat to a beautiful house in Glenesk called The Burn a stunning Mansion House used by the English Dept of St Andrews University where I was an undergraduate student. This was an absolutely unforgettable four days for many reasons – and this was one of the reasons that I was so excited when Anne Cater invited me to participate in this blog tour for Fenella Gentleman’s new novel.
I was totally intrigued by the premise of this novel and keen to immerse myself in this intense world by reading about it after experiencing this situation for myself so many years ago. It was interesting to read about the experiences of a woman being appointed as a new Tutor in the very male-dominated world of academia in the 1970s; there are so many issues of equality and female experiences of closed worlds that still remain relevant so many years later. It’s tempting to see the 50’s as ancient history for young people today, but it’s quite alarming how little had altered by my experiences in the 90’s – and how much young women today might find resonant.
I enjoy books in ‘closed’ settings and this book is closed in both senses – it’s a single week
and a closed group of people, all thrown together in the week during which this reading party takes place: I also enjoyed the sense that this is a momentous week for so many of them – a week that alters things for nearly all of the people who take part in this academic retreat.
The Reading Party is set in gorgeous Cornwall, rather than rural Aberdeenshire like the retreat I went on – but there were so many things that really struck a chord. Both weeks allocated specific time for study but also time to enjoy the countryside and group tasks to bring people together, so what you get out of the experience is so much more than academic. This was like my experience as being away from the structured environment of the university changed everything. It was interesting to see this experience from the other side of the table: witnessing the experience from the perspective of an academic rather than a student. Fenella Gentleman is a sensitive and articulate writer who has created a cast of characters that are wholly believable and interact very naturally with one another. I loved the character of Sarah, who has to evolve in front of our eyes as she tries to survive her first year in a job where being a woman is definitely more of a setback than a perk…
I really liked Sarah. She is able to be herself despite being presented with an alien social group that she has to navigate carefully if she wants to ‘survive’ – I loved hearing her internal deliberations and I think that this is one of the ways that Gentleman allows us to connect with Sarah so successfully. Who wouldn’t sympathise with that feeling of hesitation about ‘…how to pass the various decanters’ without looking like you just don’t fit in? It’s not just a question of gender, there are allegiances, social class and group dynamics to carefully navigate – it’s quite the tightrope act and Gentleman’s deft characterisation ensures that we are walking alongside Sarah every step of the way.
Sarah was easy for me to connect with – I liked all of her character traits as she is clever, compassionate and also determined to succeed which made her a much more interesting person, in my opinion. You will be intrigued to see how she copes and adapts to this ‘brave new world’ as the novel progresses and I think you’ll feel that she deserves to succeed as she does not let the setbacks she encounters deter her from feeling like being there is her right as a faculty member and hoping that her quietly dignified approach wins the day.
Even though I really connected with the precise situation that Sarah found herself in, I definitely think that you don’t have to have been on an academic retreat to enjoy this book. It is still possible for readers to feel a genuine connection with the situation that Sarah found herself in, regardless of your own profession or set of circumstances. Who hasn’t felt like a fish out of water? Who hasn’t understood the right way to fit in – or felt judged for things that are totally outwith their control? For all of these reasons, Sarah’s situation is a very easy one to identify with and I know that many readers will engage with her refreshing take on being an ‘outsider’ in a very close-knit and well-established group. I didn’t want it to end – I wanted to relive my reading retreat experience forever…
I recommend this book to anyone who likes a compelling read with well-drawn characters where the historical period is lovingly recreated and the first-person narration lets you totally immerse yourself in that time and place. I loved reading about Sarah’s experience and it provoked a fabulous trip down memory lane for me as well as a fantastic and thought-provoking read.
The Reading Party was published by Muswell Press in June 2018.
Thanks to the publishers and Anne Cater for asking me to join the blog tour and for the advance copy.
Writer On The Shelf
Fenella Gentleman studied PPE at Wadham College, Oxford, when it went mixed. She participated in two reading parties in Cornwall. After graduating she worked in publishing, before moving into marketing and communications in the professions. She lives in London and North Norfolk.
You can find Fenella on Twitter here!
She is great company on Twitter and very supportive of her fellow authors too.