The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman
The Reading Party
by Fenella Gentleman
It's 1976 and Sarah Addleshaw is the first female 'Fellow' (teacher and senior member of staff) at one of the colleges at Oxford University. As this traditionally male institution opens its doors to women, Sarah is excited and keen to prove her worth. When offered the chance to accompany and oversee the small selection of hand picked students during a week of study and reading away from Oxford, Sarah is very flattered yet also filled with a sense of trepidation. This is the first 'Reading Party' made up of a mixed group of students and little does Sarah realise the impact these seven days will have on her personal, emotional and professional journey.
This was a very interesting read as although it's a story exploring the journey of a new Tutor in the world of academia in the 1970s, the issues of equality and women's education that are explored remain relevant. It's also refreshing to read a novel set within the world of an elite university in the 1970s that takes the point of view of a female who is not a student, but on the staff there.
I was drawn to the book by the cover which certainly captures the era and atmosphere of the novel and reminded me of some of my favourite titles published by Virago Press. The colours, font and image create an impression of calmness and thoughtfulness. I also couldn't resist the fact that the protagonist is described as 'spirited' and 'keen to prove her worth' - who wouldn't? Particularly given the premise of this novel, it's intriguing.
The simplicity of the title is so apt. When the senior member of staff comments that the Reading Party is only seven days long and therefore a mere 'pinprick in the timeline of [the student's] years', Sarah perceptively replies that actually 'there are pinpricks and pinpricks'. The title of the novel states just what it is, a story following the week during which this reading party takes place, but it is a week that shapes, changes, influences and affects each of the people who attend it far beyond those seven days.
Much of The Reading Party is set in Cornwall. A Reading Party is essentially a study week or retreat for a small group of chosen students who are accompanied by two tutors who oversee their work. The week includes dedicated time for study but also long walks and group activities, so the real scenery and backdrop to the novel is Cornwall not Oxford. This gives the author opportunities for describing coastal path walks and placing the characters in a more open landscape that is away from the heritage, expectation, prestige and rules of Oxford University. In this sense, Gentleman allows the characters to test boundaries, test each other and spend some time discovering themselves. For Sarah, she finds herself facing another new set of dilemmas and situations as she tries to navigate her way through her first year in this new job under the watchful eye of the senior tutor.
Putting a small group of people in one house for one week is always going to be fascinating; it's fascinating to watch the changing dynamics and relationships between people in a different context and over a short period of time when people are together in a more intense situation. The author does this in a very nuanced and subtle manner and the reader is closely aligned with Sarah all the time, watching, observing, learning more about the characters. There is a much that is implied, inferred, reflected upon rather than a rollercoaster of dramatic revelations.
I really liked Sarah. She is a complex character who always feels authentic and real. She suffers from a sense of 'imposter syndrome' and vulnerability, but she is strong and can quickly reassure herself during any 'wobble'. The Reading Party shows how many challenges there are for Sarah to overcome, from the very practical to issues such as equality, privilege and professional ability.
'No one explained the rules - when to start eating, how to pass the various decanters...even the social chat assumed you knew about the arts and required you to have views.'
Even though these actions which display a movement towards change, such as giving Sarah the college job and inviting her to oversee the reading week, there is still a long way to go. These actions still require constant proof and justification from Sarah. She feels scrutinised, judged and constantly anxious. She is a very well crafted characters; intelligent, gentle but able, thoughtful. And ultimately she has the strength to see her commitments through and the courage to make a change. The words 'brave' and 'boundaries' crop up a few times, in relation to other moments and characters as well, but they are words that perhaps capture the impression the reader should be left with at the end of the book.
This is a book set in the world of academia and there are references to Sarah's research and to the institution she is part of, but there has to be otherwise it would not be convincing novel. However this is a very readable and accessible story and these more intellectual references always make sense to the reader whatever their frame of reference. It is still possible to relate to and have empathy for Sarah, even if the reader has no context or shared experience about university or study. We've all spent a period of time with a group of people, we've all had a holiday or 'pinprick' moment that has changed us. We've all had our decisions questioned or had to justify (fairly or nor) our comments or work and we've all experienced judgement, so in that sense, this book deals with issues that are indeed universal. Certainly the role of women and their experiences in this novel will be of interest to lots of readers.
The most enjoyable thing about the book is Sarah's first person narrative. The prose is very readable, it is dense and it lengthy, but it allows the reader to become immersed in the reading week, to get to know the characters properly. This depth and level of detail enables the whole experience to be more rewarding and satisfying and allows the reader to appreciate the subtleties and nuances. As Sarah herself is a thoughtful and reflective character, so too is the narrative, structure and rhythm of this book. It's a pensive read and one to be relished.
The Reading Party is published by Muswell Press on the 14th June 2018.
My thanks to the publishers and to Anne Cater for the invitation to join the blog tour and for the advance copy of the novel.
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.