* * * *
Oxford Messed Up is a unique literary love story that transports readers on a meaningful and emotional journey where the academic world of Oxford, the music of Van Morrison, and an old claw-foot bathtub serve as a backdrop for learning, self-discovery, and transcendent love. Rhodes Scholar Gloria Zimmerman is an academic superstar who has come to Oxford University to study feminist poetry. Yet the rigors of the academy pale in comparison to her untreated Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, fueled by her overachieving parents and manifested in a deathly aversion to germs and human contact. Her next-door neighbor (who is also, to her mortification, her loomate) is Henry Young, the appealing but underachieving musician son of an overbearing and disapproving Oxford don. Still mourning the death of his supportive mother while enduring the mockery of his disapproving and merciless father, Henry is haunted by the unexpectedly serious ramifications of a reckless and tragic youth. Gloria and Henry's relationship evolves from a shared obsession with Van Morrison's music into a desire on the part of each to fill in the gaps in the life of the other. Yet the constraints of a debilitating illness and the looming revelation of a catastrophic secret conspire to throw their worlds into upheaval and threaten the possibilities of their unlikely yet redemptive love.
When I first started reading Oxford Messed Up, I thought it would be a story that, due to subject matter and writing style, would take me a week to complete. But I couldn’t put it down. Less than 48 hours later I was done reading. And after 8 hours of dreams containing a continuous Van Morrison soundtrack (from my limited Van Morrison repertoire), I HAD to put my thoughts to paper (or in this case, a word document that would be cut and pasted to Blogger).
The story starts out with Gloria traveling from Chicago to Oxford. As her parents drive her to O’Hare we quickly learn about Gloria’s musical love affair with Van Morrison, her unhealthy friendship with her best friend Oliver and her obsessive use of hand sanitizer that has turned her hands into a raw, red, dry mess. We also quickly learn that Oliver is not a person. Oliver is the name Gloria has given her OCD. I know this is fiction but I had a hard time containing the rage I felt toward the psychiatrist that convinced Gloria to give her OCD a name and in turn give it even more control. I gathered the advice was given not yet knowing how severe Gloria’s OCD truly was or would become but you could tell it caused so much more damage that it was hard to contain my anger.
When Gloria arrives at her flat in Oxford she immediately runs to the loo. No person with Gloria’s germophobia was going to use the airport or airplane bathrooms, which means that her need to use the loo in her private flat was absolute. But she runs into the surprise of her life when she finds she shares a loo with the flat next door. And that flat’s tenant is happily sitting on the toilet while playing his guitar.
Henry Young is everything Oliver hates. He’s a perpetually unkempt musician with no desire to take his nepotistic doctoral work seriously. An unshaven, non-hand washing, dirty clothes wearing musician with a filthy room – but Gloria (despite Oliver’s protestations) can’t help but accept Henry’s offer of friendship when she finds they share an obsession with all things Van Morrison.
Henry has his own demons, his own history and his own illness to contend with. But none of those things can bring down the wonderful new friendship he has started with his “loomate.” Henry immediately recognizes Gloria extreme OCD but it takes an unexpected breakdown to make him truly understand the severity of her disease. At a time when many people would give up on Gloria, Henry does the opposite. He enlists the help of his sister, a psychiatrist working at Oxford, to teach him what he can do to help Gloria combat her OCD. But this is not a one-sided relationship. Gloria, in return, has something to offer to Henry in exchange for his help. She helps him build the confidence he needs to realize that not only is he a doctoral student worthy of his position within the university but he also has the ability to live up to his own expectations.
This was different from most books I read. You all know that I have a special obsession with all things romantic and angsty. Although you might be able to argue that this book has its share of angst, I would argue back that, unlike other romances, it does not use that angst to manipulate the reader’s emotions. The writing was very methodical and informative which fit Gloria’s narrative perfectly. But it was never too technical or boring. Kaufman switches seamlessly between telling the reader what is happening and showing the reader the dialogue and action. There were times when I felt that I was being bombarded with unnecessary information but in the end this wasn’t a bad thing. There wasn’t a word or sentence that I skipped or regretted reading.
This is a very special novel. It would translate beautifully to film. If that ever happened, I can guarantee it would be one I would watch over and over again. And to think it has its own amazing built in soundtrack. Absolute perfection.
Thank you, Andrea Kayne Kaufman, for showing people how debilitating mental diseases can be. For teaching people to understand that it’s not as easy as just turning it off. For helping readers realize that no matter our struggles we still have the power to choose happiness; to be fatally optimistic - to steal from Henry’s dissertation on Van Morrison.
But most of all, Ms. Kaufman? Thank you for tempting me to begin my own Van Morrison education. For me, his music will always be entwined with Gloria and Henry’s story and I think that is a wonderful thing.