The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman #BookReview #BlogTour

It is the seventies and the colleges of Oxford 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, her college's 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 one of them, the suave American Tyler. Torn between professional integrity and personal feelings she faces her biggest challenge to date.

I'm delighted to be sharing my review of The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman today. Many thanks to the author, publishers and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in  this blog tour and for my copy of the novel.
I fell a little bit in love with The Reading Party when I first set eyes on that wonderful front cover, so redolent of the period and was very soon captivated by this engaging novel. It follows the early academic career of Sarah Addleshaw, newly appointed as Oxford's first - and only - Fellow at one of the formerly male only colleges. Having only recently opened its doors to women she is keen to make a good impression and is only too aware of her responsibility to the young women looking to follow in her footsteps in what remains a patriarchal society. Though set over forty years ago, the ongoing need for discussion regarding equality and women's roles in the workplace means this still feels a very relevant book.
Sarah is flattered but a little perturbed when she is asked to accompany the first mixed Reading Party to Cornwall. Though a long standing Oxford tradition, this is the first to include young men and women.  She knows she is expected to set the standard while there but struggles with what exactly her role should be, particularly under the ever watchful eyes of her senior colleague and long term Reading Party host, Dr Loxton. With most of the proceedings taking place in Cornwall, the setting is evocatively described, the wildness of the coastal landscape symbolic of the intense emotional ramifications of the week. Sarah herself, is a fascinating character, simultaneously excited by the prospect of life within such a venerable institution and yet still anxious as to how her actions are perceived by others. The students in the Reading Party are not much younger than she is and she sometimes struggles with her new role as somebody slightly apart from them, she participates in their games and activities yet isn't a friend or peer. She is particularly drawn to one of the Finalists, Tyler Winston, a Rhodes Scholar from America but knowing relationships with students are frowned upon, she desperately tries to hide her feelings for him from the rest of the group though she is unable to deny to herself that she is irrevocably attracted to him - as is he to her.
The first person narrative gives an autobiographical feel to the novel as she observes the changing dynamics within the group and how each member relates to her and to one another. While the students and Sarah are rather seduced by their intense week together, Loxton takes a more prosaic view, later explaining to Sarah that The Reading Party takes place over just seven days and is merely 'a pinprick in the timeline of their lives.' However, as Sarah points out, there are 'pinpricks and pinpricks' musing that "Most are so small they are barely noticed; a few are large enough to make a difference to the picture overall." We've all experienced those brief moments that feel transformative, those points in our life that seem more vivid somehow. We can relate too, to the times where we felt we needed to justify our decisions; when we've second guessed our choices; when we're unsure of our place within a group.
The gentle pacing allows for an intriguing story to unfold and it is one which will resonate with many people; this is a book which doesn't rely on shocking plot twists and is instead an engrossing, more nuanced story which examines how attitudes to gender, race and class influenced and continues to shape society and our changing roles within it. It also looks at some of the themes which define the human condition; personal aspiration, familial expectations, duty and honour versus love and desire. The Reading Party is not a quick read but it was an absolute pleasure to savour the beautiful prose and to be rewarded with such a thoughtful, perceptive and empathetic novel.

The Reading Party will be published by Muswell Press on 14th June 2018 and can be purchased here. Don't miss the other stops on the blog tour, details are below.

About the Author

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.