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 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 college trip to Cornwall, Sarah finds herself illicitly drawn to the suave American Tyler. Torn between professional integrity and personal feelings, she faces her biggest challenge yet.
Technically Fenella Gentleman’s The Reading Party doesn’t count as a backlisted title. Published in 2018, it is both the author’s debut and also her most recent book. But Back from the Backlist is named after MY personal backlist and, sadly, The Reading Party has languished on my shelves for far too long.
Set in the Oxford of 1976, The Reading Party charts a year in the life of historian Sarah Addleshaw. Young and spirited, Sarah has risen through the academic hierarchy to become the first female ‘Fellow’ of her Oxford college, and is keen to prove that she is up to the title in a world still suffused with the stuffy atmosphere and patriarchal structure that comes with centuries of tradition.
Following Sarah from the Michaelmas term through to Trinity, the novel centres itself around The Reading Party, a week-long retreat for an eclectic mix of gifted and noteworthy students that Sarah finds herself drafted to accompany. Organised for many years by the forbidding Dr Loxton, the Reading Party is, for the first time, welcoming a mixed group of students – and the faculty are watching eagerly to see if the event will continue to be a success.
Split between the dreaming spires of Oxford’s colleges and the solitude of the Cornish coast, The Reading Party is a novel that oozes atmosphere, and has a real grasp of its sense of both time and place. I really empathised with Sarah’s struggles to navigate a path between her own knowledge of her self-worth and the imposter syndrome that she feels when confronted with age-old traditions and coded rules that are implied as opposed to explained.
As an academic myself, I loved reading about the politics of life in an Oxford college but it is with the beginning of the Reading Party, and the movement of the action to Cornwall, that the novel really takes flight. Placing a group of people in a contained space for an extended period of time is always going to result in drama. What I really enjoyed about The Reading Party, however, is that this doesn’t take any of the traditional or predicatable forms.
There’s no massive bust-up or illicit love affair. Instead there’s a group of people forming connections, testing boundaries, and shifting their understanding of themselves and of each other. This makes The Reading Party a rather quiet novel but it’s certainly no less interesting for it – I found it compelling to watch as the characters navigated their sense of themselves, their world and each other.
For Sarah, this navigation involves re-assessing her own assumptions about her colleague Loxton, accepting the realities of academic life, and negotiating her illicit feelings for charismatic American student Tyler. Being present in her head as she does this allowed me to really relate to Sarah as a character, even when I didn’t agree with her choices and decisions. Her complexity and depth is refreshing, and she certainly felt like a real person to me, as did her fellow Reading Party attendees.
As I said above, The Reading Party is a quiet novel in many respects. Gentle in its pacing, and beautifully written, this is an immersive and satisfying tale that deserves wider recognition. Whilst it’s certainly not the page-turner that some readers will be looking for, anyone seeking a pensive yet engaging read that reflects on issues of gender equality, history, prejudice, and perception will be richly rewarded.
My thanks go to the author and the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.