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Cliched and hackneyed
on 9 December 2013
Wendy Holden's latest novel is set in a city that is an uncomfortable mixture of Oxford and Cambridge, and follows the stories of Isabel, a shy fresher, Olly, an unemployed graduate, Diana, newly divorced and working as a college head gardener, and Richard, the newly-appointed Master of Branston College. Holden seems to be attempting a mix of romcom and social satire, but this novel fell flat for me. Although it's readable and the characters are likeable, it wasn't witty or realistic enough to be truly engaging.
Having spent both my undergraduate and postgraduate years at Cambridge, I'm always keen to read a novel set in an ancient university, and there is certainly plenty to satirise about the Cambridge lifestyle. However, Holden's heavy-handed cliches miss the mark. The Oxbridge she depicts seems to be stuck in an alternate 1950s, where only rich posh boys or poor, deserving comprehensive students attend, and even then the two types of students are segregated into old and new colleges. This is of course rubbish. Although it would be wrong to say there are no issues with social class at Oxbridge, the fuss made about Isobel getting in from a comprehensive is inaccurate and misleading, and there's no reason why somebody from a state school wouldn't attend one of the ancient colleges, much as I enjoyed the depiction of Branston (which I envisaged as Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge). The stereotypes persist throughout the non-Oxbridge sections of the novel, with working-class characters patronisingly sketched as 'salt of the earth', 'heart of gold' types, while posh characters (except of course Diana) are entitled, screeching harpies. Other than Branston College, the city depicted bears little resemblance to actual locations in either Oxford or Cambridge, and the novel lacks a sense of place in consequence.
This hasn't encouraged me to read anything else by Holden, and those seeking a light, entertaining read should go elsewhere - I would recommend Harriet Evans, Miranda Dickinson or Tasmina Perry for better chick lit. As for a romcom set in a university, I'm struggling to find a good example - RSVP by Helen Warner is even worse than this - but Rosy Thornton's Hearts and Minds is at least more accurate, if no better-written.