Sunday, April 1, 2012

Book Review: Oxford Messed Up, by Andrea Kayne Kaufman

Oxford Messed Up. By Andrea Kayne Kaufman. Grant Place Press, 2011. 324 pages.

The Cadence Group recently asked me to read and review a novel, Oxford Messed Up, by Andrea Kayne Kaufman.
I was happy to read the book, because one of the main characters, Gloria Zimmerman, suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I was curious to see how that would be portrayed.
The novel is about two people who consider themselves messed up. Though very different from each other in background and personality, each shares a love of Van Morrison’s music.
His music serves as a background and almost as a character, as the two help each other to transcend their demons.
Gloria Zimmerman is a Yale graduate and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, where she is studying feminist poetry and serving as a research assistant with an expert in the genre.
Gloria has suffered from OCD since she was in seventh grade. Although she has been prescribed Luvox, she doesn’t take the medicine on a regular basis.
Gloria’s OCD, which she calls Oliver, revolves around contamination. She is terrified of germs and goes to great lengths to avoid them or to rid herself and environment of them.
She cleans the bathroom every day, scrubbing already clean surfaces again and again. She avoids people as much as possible, and finds herself happiest when she’s in the sealed environment of a rare book room in the library.
Gloria keeps a huge supply of cleaning products, antibacterial wipes and, her favorite, hand sanitizer.
As a result of all her cleaning, Gloria’s hands are red and raw, immediately noticeable to others, a visible sign of her inner suffering.
One of the only ways she can comfort herself is by listening to the poetry of Morrison’s music.
Henry is also an Oxford student. He is studying music, but not the music he loves, Morrison’s. He is an academic mess, avoiding the library, research and writing. He has no confidence in himself as a scholar.
Henry is a recovering drug addict, and has the track marks on his arms as a reminder. He has other secrets, too, which keep him from having motivation to do much more than listen to his Morrison records.
When Gloria arrives at Oxford, she discovers that she will be sharing a bathroom, or a loo, with Henry. Oliver is disgusted by this and by Henry’s messiness and “his dirty, feces, germ-infested hands.”
But Gloria and Henry become friends, on Gloria’s terms. She allows herself to interact with Henry but keeps herself distant and doesn’t confide her troubles to him.
They spend hours together talking and sharing their love of the music and poetry of Morrison and others.
In anger after Gloria rebuffs his offer to take her to a Morrison concert, Henry urinates in their shared bathtub. Gloria responds by flying into a rage and then having a meltdown.
This is a turning point in the story, because it brings Gloria and Henry together in a more honest way. They agree that he will be her coach in cognitive behavioral therapy, specifically exposure and response prevention, and she will be his dissertation coach, helping him pull together a new topic based on Morrison’s fatalistic optimism.
Though they have many setbacks and face new issues as they reveal more of themselves to each other, Gloria and Henry are able to transcend the problems that they have and begin to enjoy and find happiness in life.
The novel moves along quickly, with short chapters and lots of different scenes. The viewpoint switches from character to character, each chapter told from the point of view of Gloria or Henry or, in a few chapters, other characters.
The writing is concise and evocative.
Kaufman does a fine job in describing what it’s like to suffer from OCD. For example, her description of the process by which Gloria cleans the bathroom, and the way she rubs her hands together with hand sanitizer while chanting to herself, will resonate with people who have OCD.
Henry is a tortured but loveable character. It’s a little hard to believe that Gloria, steeped in years of OCD, would so immediately be drawn to someone like Henry, but their relationship develops believably.
The book takes place over about five months, and that’s the only real quibble I have with it. Gloria takes Luvox regularly and works on her cognitive behavioral therapy for just two months. Yet, she has almost a complete recovery from OCD. In fact, I think most readers of the novel would say she was cured.
During the two months, Gloria also gets professional help at Oxford, but her quick recovery is still unbelievable.
This may give readers who suffer from OCD and those who don’t the impression that OCD can be easily overcome in just two months, while in reality, it can take longer to reach a place where OCD does not control a sufferer’s life.
I love how the story intertwines with Morrison’s music and women’s poetry. There are many metaphorical layers in the story that enrich it.
Study questions are included at the end of the novel, and these could be helpful for a book club or a class.
Anyone who likes a good love story and who delights in seeing characters overcome great obstacles will enjoy this novel. The book could inspire readers who happen to have OCD and inform others about the disorder.
For more information about Kaufman and about how to purchase the book, go to her website at The book is available as a hardcover, paperback and as an e-book.


  1. Seems like quite an intersting book. Great review Tina :)

  2. Thanks, Keith. It was a good book, and I hope it does well.

  3. Thanks for the review, Tina. Definitely sounds like a different type of book. There are so many books out there that just seem to re-cover the same type of story. You know, I'm not surprised the author had Gloria mostly recovered in two months. A lot of information out there seems to indicate that a few months of intense CBT is all that is needed, so the author probably picked up on that in her research.

    I'm with Gloria. I like the idea of that rare book room. I could spend a lot of time in a place like that!

    1. I can't tell from sure from the author's website whether or not she suffers from OCD. I guess in a novel, you can condense and compress things that would normally take longer. But it makes it unrealistic for most people. It's still a very good book, though. I loved reading about Oxford. I would love to spend some time in that library with the rare books! And I just love the quiet of libraries too.

  4. You make it sound like a really great read. I do think people can recover in any amount of time, short or long. But I agree it might frustrate someone taking a long time. I have seen people recover quickly. It may be hard to change compulsions but if you think about it, it is just a belief!

    1. Thanks, Jodi. I think a quick recovery can happen too, but it seemed too quick and easy (in my opinion) in the book. That was my only problem with the book, and I could live with that. It's still a really good book.

      I'm glad you stopped by!

  5. Hi Tina, First of all, your book review is very well written. I don't typically read novels (preferring memoirs) but your observations of this work make it sound interesting and would help us to understand the mind of the OCD or "germophobe." (Does that term offend them?) Anyway, I'll add it to my Goodreads list.

    1. Grace, Thank for stopping by and for your compliment. I appreciate it!

      It is an interesting read, and I think you'll enjoy it. "Germophobe" doesn't offend me, but I can't speak for all people with OCD. In the book, that's what Henry thinks Gloria's problem is at first--germ issues. It's much more than that, though. And many people with OCD don't have issues with germs, but have harm obsessions, checking rituals, etc. Thank you for being sensitive about that and asking! :-)

  6. Hi Tina and everyone,
    Thank you so much for reading Oxford Messed Up. As the author of the book and someone who has experienced OCD in my family, it was very important for me to be accurate. I wrote the book in part because I was discouraged by the usual portrayal where characters odd eccentricities were laughed at. I really wanted to show it from the inside out and show the hold that the OCD voice has. When it was my child with OCD, I really felt like we were in a love triangle of sorts. I didn't mean to suggest that OCD goes away so quickly. My experience and research shows, it is a life long struggle that is bigger and smaller and can definitely be triggered by life stressors. That being said in our experience, medication coupled with almost religious CBT caused dramatic improvement with the compulsions in just a few months. We did have the book vetted by experts. Please go to the website to see. Thank you so much for your review and comments!

    1. Andrea, I'm so sorry that your family has experienced OCD, and I hope your child is doing well.

      Your descriptions of the inner agonies of OCD and the other compulsions were spot on. The scene that goes into detail about how Gloria cleaned the bathroom brought me close to tears, because that was me 20 years ago and I knew how tortured and out of control Gloria felt.

      My OCD has waxed and waned through the years. I know people who have had almost overnight changes, but most have taken months or years. My questioning of the speed of the treatment was just a small one. It doesn't make your novel a less important work. Your book will entertain AND educate many readers, and I appreciate you writing about OCD and its effects.

      I enjoyed reading the book and writing the review, and I hope others will read it too. And I'll look forward to your next book!


    2. I hope I didn't sound defensive, Tina. I do appreciate your review. And I know OCD goes in an out as one goes through life. For Gloria, her OCD is really in out of control mode. Our child is doing so much better but we are still very vigilant and his OCD has been triggered by different adolescent experiences but fortunately we have a great therapist and some great tools so that it does not get out of control. Thanks so much for your wonderful website! What an amazing resource...

  7. It sounds like an interesting book. But I do get frustrated sometimes when books about mental illness stray from reality. I read this book Saving Max a while back, and it really irked me that a lot of it was too unrealistic.

    1. Oxford Messed Up is amazingly accurate in its portrayal of OCD. It's just the treatment part that I had the concern about. Even readers with no interest in the mental illness part would enjoy the story, I think.

      But I know how you feel. I don't like the way TV and movies portray OCD. Monk sometimes showed the pain Mr. Monk was going through, but mostly, it just made him look flaky.

  8. My list of books to read is becoming longer!!! Thank you :)

  9. Very interesting book review and following discussion! One thing that might influence the speed of recovery is how helpful a medication is. Luvox was the third SSRI that I tried, but the first one that made big inroads into one of my hardest issues. And as I recall, that happened in about three months from when I first started to take that medication at my lowest dose. I think the dose had to get high enough to be effective for me, as well. So probably a really helpful medication combined with really intense therapy would show quicker results, with no-one ever knowing for sure if one or the other or both (or time) made the difference.

  10. Nikky, My list is very long indeed! So many books, so little time . . .

    Abigail, Yes, some people have super speedy recoveries where their symptoms are almost completely gone. I was discussing this with my therapist today, and he said it can happen, but it's the exception, not the rule. The basic treatment for OCD, he said, with combined medication and therapy, doesn't usually get rid of all the symptoms. People have to live their lives with symptoms and continue to deal with it. I guess what concerned me in the book was that, in my opinion, the main character seemed all better after 2 months. That was my reading of it, my opinion.

    That said, as I've stated before, it's still a good book and an important work, I believe.


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