Book Review: Leaving Oxford by Janet W. Ferguson

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A year ago, Sarah Beth LeClair was a rising star in her advertising firm in LA, living in Malibu, and living with her doctor boyfriend. But then the accident happened. After that, the freeways, the memories, and the ghosts of LA were too much and Sarah Beth moved back home to Oxford, MS.

Still an advertising prodigy, she’s gainfully employed, but Sarah Beth has a secret. Her anxiety about driving on a highway is so debilitating that she can’t leave Oxford. When she gets outside the city limits, she has a panic attack. So she doesn’t leave.

Oxford is also home to the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, and the cutest offensive coordinator of any football team in history. Jess McCoy’s career is on the rise, too. Ever since he decimated his shoulder playing college ball and realized he couldn’t play pro, he’s wanted to coach in the NFL. And the opportunity is right around the corner.

The only problem for Jess is that he meets the beautiful and captivating Sarah Beth and begins to have feelings for her that he’s never experienced before. Suddenly, the thought of leaving Oxford isn’t quite as appealing as it was before…

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Real talk: a year ago I would have loved and adored most of this book (I would have still had a bone to pick, but more on that later). I wanted to love it now. I’m from Mississippi. Ole Miss is the rival to my own alma mater, but I could let that go for the sake of a cute, clean, Christian romance set in my home state. But it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Sigh.

There are several things it had going for it. It had a fun meet cute. It was clean. It was Christian based fiction, which I know is not a pull for a lot of people, but I’m a Christian and I like it. Football. Mississippi. A ridiculous and adorable dog.

A year ago the only thing that would have gotten on my nerves was some of what she wrote about coaching. My family is heavily involved in college sports. In the acknowledgments, Ferguson thanks former members of the Ole Miss coaching staff, so I know she at least asked a few questions. However, there were some inaccuracies that the average reader might not have noticed. Because college athletics were a part of the livelihood of my home for many years, I noticed.

Still, I could have gotten over that. Most people, even hardcore college football fans in Mississippi would have skimmed over it without much thought. I could swallow that. And a year ago, I might have. But after studying crafting and editing blogs and learning to look beyond my own perspective, there are some other things that don’t quite work for me.

Some of the dialogue feels stilted or in the wrong character voice. It’s a small thing, but it happens in several places and suggests an editing issue. And it’s not the only one.

Oxford, MS has never been this white. Is it possible that Sarah Beth’s social circle and the staff she interacts with at Ole Miss, and her office building in LA are all (except one Latino man) white? Yes, it’s possible. But when she writes about Oxford, she talks about driving through or around different areas of town and never acknowledges any character, and I mean anyone who is Black. That’s hard to swallow. The population of Mississippi is nearly 40% Black. That number gets higher in certain areas of the state. The university staff as a whole is about 30% Black. So to write a book set entirely in Oxford, Mississippi and not have a single Black character is at best incomplete. And neither the author nor anyone in the editing and publishing process seemed to notice.

I don’t have anxiety. Sarah Beth’s reluctance to accept her diagnosis and her struggle regarding using prescribed medications could be true to form. I don’t know. But the author’s treatment of diversity makes me think that a sensitivity reader should probably have been called in for this too.

I’m not trying to rip Ms. Ferguson apart. I’m saying that this book had potential, but fell short. It still has some cute scenes. I loved her line about how Mississippians feel about North Carolina and the return zinger. But I feel like this reads more like a manuscript draft than a polished and published novel.

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