Genre: Literary Fiction
Review in a word: Endearing
“When I was a self-serious child of ten or eleven I believed that novels were largely about the weather.”
Well, it’s probably not news by now that I studied abroad at Oxford in 2009, and I found “the same banal and vibrant sanities everyone does” in that place. I loved it, and so do most people who get the chance to study there. Oxford is a living remnant of the highly romanticized times I’ve always loved to read about, “the last enchantments of the Middle Ages.” So how could I resist diving into this novel, about a young man postponing adulthood a little while longer by pursuing an MA in English at Oxford? That would be my dream. In many ways, Oxford set me on a path: convinced me to pursue publishing, introduced me to my husband, gave me a new set of friends. Oxford had real, lasting effects on my life. But it was also my last enchantment, my lucky fluke, my last chance to envision a different kind of life for myself.
The last enchantments of Oxford are more than just its stone walls and cobbled streets and ancient halls; in this story, the last enchantments are the relatively protected freedoms the main character, Will, enjoys while he figures out what shape the rest of his life might take. As our main character, Will, explains:
Oxford in those first days seemed to me like the last of something in my life. Once more I could look out upon the coming years, as I had for so long, and see a future full of nothing, full of everything, before all the choices I made started to become irreversible.
Will comes to Oxford after being a staffer in Kerry’s failed presidential campaign, the relationship with his long-term girlfriend, Allison, rather stale. Oxford is a chance to reinvent himself, to explore different opportunities. Soon after he arrives, he breaks it off with Allison, although they stay in close communication and he waffles over the decision. He meets Sophie, a British grad student like himself, who is also frustratingly caught between staying with her boyfriend, Jack, and leaving him to be with Will.
What was frustrating was Will’s self-centered expectation that the women he cared about (or even just wanted to sleep with) would always be waiting for him. Will asks Allison to promise that she won’t hook up with anyone for a while after they break up, even though he himself has already slept with Sophie and Jess, a working class student whom he neglects. But in moments when other writers would let their characters continue in their paths unchecked, Finch has Will step in to let us know that he’s not totally oblivious to his flaws—a fact which I was grateful for.
For example, merely days after arriving in Oxford, Will and Allison get in a huge fight and Will goes out with his new roommates to a club. There he meets Jess, and goes back to her apartment with her. Just when I was frowning and pursing my lips…
Have I lost your sympathy? I lost my own, of course; almost immediately, but not in the cab on the way back to her apartment, not yet, I was still thinking about those e-mails. Then, too, it was the first time I had cheated on Alison, and simply to have a new body under my hands, new breasts, new skin, was overpowering. I don’t know. I don’t know what I was doing.
With that paragraph, Will was restored to my good graces (though I still mentally wagged a finger), not because I forgave him for cheating, but because I empathized with him. I’m certainly not perfect either.
Before reading the book, I highly suggest first reading Charles Finch’s article “Winning Over James Wood,” which he wrote for The Millions. It’s a fantastic article about literary criticism and a reflection on his own process writing The Last Enchantments. James Wood is concerned not just with a writer’s language for its own sake, but with what a writer’s choice in words tells of his/her “quality of thought” and “risk of the thought.” Finch says,
The Last Enchantments is a relatively conventional story about an American abroad at Oxford, where he makes a break with his past life, meets new people, and falls in love. These could be the elements of a radical book or a safe one, a good one or a terrible one. I don’t personally think it’s terrible, but it may be safe. …My own book is new, in the sense that I feel very sure it’s written with my voice, but I now I wonder if perhaps it’s not new enough.
I’m not sure what “new enough” would look like. Honestly, I’m a little suspicious of pursuing originality simply for its own sake; it can seem prideful, like Raskolnikov desperate to “speak a new word.” But speaking a new word, at least in writing, takes a dedication and faithful study of the art. The Last Enchantments is a smart, wistful look at some of the greatest years of life and I think it succeeds in adding something new to the discussion. I highly recommend it.
I’m so excited to announce that on Friday I’ll be interviewing Charles Finch about The Last Enchantments and his writing. AND this is a chance for three people to win a free copy of The Last Enchantments!
Here’s what you can to do to be entered to win:
Leave a really good question (or a funny one, or a totally random one) for Charles by clicking here. Questions must be submitted by midnight on Wednesday January 8, 2014.
Just so you know, here are the questions I’ll be asking Charles:
1. Is any part of the plot autobiographical?
2. How did you come up with the title The Last Enchantments?
3. Do you have any ideas about what “new enough” would look like?
4. Do you have a favorite place in Oxford?
5. What is your favorite memory of Oxford?
6. For those of us who aren’t familiar with the Charles Lenox series, could you share a little bit about that series?
7. Can you give us a hint about your next writing project?
Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. His first contemporary novel, The Last Enchantments, will be published at the end of January. He lives in Chicago.
Also, just for fun, you should follow The Last Enchantments tumblr. Makes me so warm and fuzzy seeing all those pictures of Oxford!