A review by laporziuncula
Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

emotional hopeful reflective slow-paced


I really thought I would like this more than I did, because I really loved the film, and a few people had told me that the book was "so much better than the movie!" (which usually is the case!) I went into the book looking forward to more enchanting descriptions of Weber's life at Oxford, and more details into her journey to faith. Perhaps my judgment of it is overly harsh because the film had set my expectations up high, I'm not sure. But I'm puzzled by the glowing reviews so many people gave me.

A lot of other reviews remarked about how unrealistic the dialogue was, so I won’t go into that here except to say that I agree. I have no problem with memoirs using some license to recreate dialogue and set the scene for the reader of course, but I feel like it should still be believable, and this was really not.

The biggest thing that irked me throughout was that she refers to her future husband, a man she claims has had more of an impact on her life than anyone else as TDH (for “Tall, Dark, and Handsome”) THE ENTIRE BOOK. I don't know why this is. It's not to protect his identity, because you know they end up getting married and his name is Kent. The reader also knows that many individuals' names have been changed to protect their privacy, which is totally understandable. It's not clear why she doesn't use his name or at least give him an actual pseudonym. I can only imagine the outrage if a man wrote a memoir using “Petite, Blonde & Beautiful” or something equally superficial as his nickname for a woman in his life that supposedly meant a lot to him. I kept thinking she was going to start using his name once they'd gotten closer and her initial wariness of him passed, but nope, it's TDH to the bitter end. I tried to just write it off as a minor annoyance and move on, but the more the story progressed the more distracting it was. It really did make it hard for me to take his impact on her life seriously.

I think I expected a deeper exploration of faith and her tackling the obstacles someone with her background might face in believing in Christ. But her objections to faith are pretty shallow: She’s “not into old dead white guys” and women like Flannery O’Connor are irrelevant and “have nothing to say to her.”. Meanwhile, she’s studying THE ROMANTICS, a bunch of old dead white guys, at Oxford, a school that’s reputation is built largely on the legacies of a bunch of old dead white guys. (Make it make sense, lol.) She does eventually recognize that she’d been very prejudiced and closed off to ideas from people she didn’t want to hold as substantial, but the disconnect was still laughable. 

However, her reasoning for finally coming to faith also comes across as a bit superficial. She wanted what Christians she knew had, and realized some of them were more intelligent than she gave them credit for, so she just… decides to believe, is the way the narrative comes across. (And again, in particular, the impact of a guy she calls Tall, Dark & Handsome is hard to take seriously.)

I enjoy books this length usually, but this really dragged, and part of it was because Caro seems so whiny a lot of the time. A lot of the whining has to do with people in her life not being more accepting of her becoming a Christian, but the way she portrays her interactions with them makes it seem like a lot of the awkwardness was her doing. On top of that, there were a lot of times when I felt like conversations weren’t making sense; there were jokes between characters and references to back stories that seemed to come up out of nowhere. I got the sense that they were SUPPOSED to make sense, and I wasn’t constantly looking back thinking I must have missed something in a previous conversation, but I hadn't. I wondered if they were leftover references to things that were in previous drafts and subsequently cut, but not all the references had been caught and edited out. Whatever the case may be, I felt like an outsider overhearing bits and pieces of discussions.

Ultimately, I’m not sure who the target audience of this memoir is. It’s definitely not something I’d recommend to a friend from an academic, agnostic/atheist background who was curious about Christianity. If you want a sweet conversion story/love story set in Oxford, this is one of the rare instances that I’d say to skip straight the film (which truly is good; after reading this and feeling so disappointed I went back and watched it again thinking maybe I’d overrated that, but it really is a beautiful, solid film.)

Certainly, Weber has a beautiful conversion story, and her life is her life. There are some beautiful anecdotes, some beautiful conversations, and some interesting insights into different songs and writings of various literary figures, particularly the Romantics, which is what she was there to study. I’m sure a lot of what I’m criticizing is due to the difficulty of condensing real life events and conversations to fit the book, but overall this needed to be better edited to be an effective memoir of a conversion story.