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 http://andreakaynekaufman.com/. The book is available as a hardcover, paperback and as an e-book.