Early Decision

Early Decision

by Lacy Crawford. William Morrow: 2013.  

I thought Early Decision would be like others in a certain category of chick-lit that portrays the lifestyles of the rich and famous mommies. I Don’t Know How She Does It or The Nanny Diaries might be considered two examples of the genre I have in mind. But Crawford’s book is of a much different caliber. It still has an aura of chick-lit about it; perhaps this is unavoidable when the protagonist is a single woman in her late twenties who happens to be dealing with a commitment-phobe boyfriend. But though it has that easy-breezy feel of an effortless chick lit, the writing is still insightful and well done (most chick lit writing is over-dramatic and uses clichés; none of that here). Perhaps the reason for this difference is that both the author and the protagonist – who also have in common that they were at one time college admissions counselors to the children of the aforementioned rich and famous mommies – feel passionately about the importance of good writing. An example:

“ ‘All right,’ he said. ‘So how do you know when it’s a good essay or a bad one?’

‘Oh,’ she [Anne, the admissions counselor] replied. ‘You see, kids do this thing…when they’re asked to write in the first person…kids switch into what I call English-teacher mode. Their voice on the page – you can hear it when they read out loud – gets higher, affected, like they’re pretending to have an accent from an impressive country they’ve never been to…Their sentences run on and on because they mistake length for persuasiveness. They dangle modifiers and bury antecedents. They capitalize like Germans. They use the word ‘extremely’ and start sentences with ‘However, comma.’..They’re reflexive and jumpy, and they strangle every idea they have so they can hurry on to the next one. Nothing is cumulative….Somewhere toward the end, it’ll occur to them that they should mention college, so there will be a spasm of references to some school or preferred major of ‘the future’…if they’re feeling poetic, they’ll end on the word ‘beyond.’”

Let me take the opportunity to proclaim a cheerful, hearty “mea culpa” to probably all of those and more in my own blog posts. I’d also like to acknowledge that I loved my college experience and am very grateful that I was given the opportunity to go wherever I wanted. I don’t think this book is knocking any of that. Is going to college a good thing? Yep. Is getting to choose where you want to go a good thing, too? Yes. Are community service, extra-curricular activities, and AP classes great things and worth the struggle? Yes. Has the college admissions process gotten slightly absurd and is it worthy of a good laugh? Also yes.

The book follows Anne, a private admissions counselor, who meets with wealthy high school seniors and their parents to help them get into the coveted brand-name colleges. Besides excerpts like the first one in the post, which tickled my writing fancies, the main character is named Anne, and the author makes offhand references both to Gregor Samsa and Sebastian Flyte. References to Brideshead Revisited are an unexpected delight anywhere but most unexpected in a chick-lit sort of book. The fact that the reference was directed at an overachieving high school student who has not only just ‘come out’ to his disapproving father but also admitted his guilt in stealing Anne’s daily New York Times because he doesn’t want her to be exposed to liberal drivel – well, it leads one to study the author’s bio on the back panel and wonder Who is this person? And then perhaps to google ‘doppelganger.’

This is an area that is ripe for cutting social commentary, and Crawford has plenty of it: “More accurately, how to awaken these families from a fantasy that held colleges up bright and shining and implacably steady in character, to reveal each as just what it was – a living, breathing institution – struggling to serve young minds weaned on ambition and fear and heading into a job market that matched conscription to greed and made interns of all the rest?”

As I expected, Crawford/Anne bemoans the insanity that overtakes parents and their children as they frantically build their “resumes” with community service and extracurricular activities that they would have no interest in engaging in without the specter of college admissions. There’s no easy discernible line between real and satire when she describes characters like Hunter who “spent the autumn doing trail maintenance with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service…for the winter he traveled to Bogota to brush up on his Spanish and intern with a private equity firm…and in the spring he rented a condo in Miami, where he spent mornings teaching tennis to Cuban refugee children and afternoons focusing on his own [tennis] game with a private coach.” She laments that while college was and can be an exhilarating dream, now it was “an exercise in self-branding. The schools were secondary. Marketing the student came first.”

Yet the best part about Crawford/Anne is not her biting satire but that she has real empathy for her teenage students. She takes their essays seriously and carefully, and reads between the lines to find out more about them, as she does in this conversation with Hunter:

“ ‘…In that case, let me tell you a few things that really interested me in your piece.’

‘Fine.’

‘First, how profound it can be to feel in significant in the face of Nature – to feel both irrelevant and deeply accompanied. Make sense?

‘Sort of.’

‘…Second…the desire to share one’s feelings but the difficulty of putting them into words. Wanting to keep things private but thinking they’d be even more special if you could share them. Yes?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Third, feeling like the world has been hidden from you, like you’ve not been able to see things as they really are. Yes?’

‘Oh, totally…’”

Once a week I teach a class full of teenagers, and I think I can appreciate how Crawford/Anne highlights the twin emotions of frustration and amusement that come with coaching that age group. My [admittedly very limited] experience is that in a group, all is lost, as their self-consciousness of being surrounded by peers will trump any other meaningful action. Yet, from time to time, on their own, there will be flashes, as Crawford/Anne notices: “…If you get a seventeen-year-old talking about something that really matters to him, just talking, telling the truth, it’s the best. They’re deadly serious and funny as hell and really original. They have great voices with better rhythm than you or I because they haven’t read all the boring crap yet. They don’t know how they’re supposed to sound, so they sound fabulous. All that melodrama, it has a real keening to it, if you can tap into it. It’s wonderful…”

She tries to help her students see that, with their background of parental support, privilege, general overachievement habits, and education up to this point, they will probably be successful no matter what college they attend. She comforts one student who wrote her admissions essay about her experience volunteering at a Somalian refugee center and is a national debate star:

“ ‘Alexis, where you go to college is not the same as who you are.’

‘No, but it shapes me. It, like, shapes everything.’

‘Unless you consider that there’s a trajectory to all of this passion. That you have a destiny, an intellectual and emotional destiny, and that this force you feel is driving you toward that. Regardless of whether you turn left or right, you’ll get there. You can’t not get there.’” *

Early Decision does contain some of the usual fare of chick-lit. There are high-strung self-absorbed moms, schmucky dads, and a schmucky boyfriend. Yet besides the prescient insight and empathy, there’s another element that takes it beyond usual chick-lit. Anne’s descriptions of her own experiences post-college, when she attempted to pursue a PhD in English, seem to reveal some political-social conservative leanings (as if the NY-Times snatching kid wasn’t enough). She recalls how “she appreciated that the Marxist students were always first when the [fellowship check] office opened at nine. The very same ones who argued, in the seminar on Moby-Dick, that the whale signified a commodity and that the book was an allegory of the industrial revolution. To which point the queer theorists took great exception: the whale was a phallus…the post-colonial theorists claimed the cetacean was an animation of statehood, and the theory-of-aesthetics folks considered anality relevant to the discussion. The disability studies student – who herself was rumored to have chronic fatigue – stopped conservation with her assertion that the enormous whale signified the longed-for bodily wholeness…Anne wrote her final paper on the whale qua whale. Her professor was thrilled. No one had ever taken this approach before, he said…except Melville, Anne thought.” Ah yes, this is so familiar to me.

All the more interesting is that Crawford/Anne dares to imply that Toni Morrison may not, in fact, be all she’s cracked up to be. During a much sought-after seminar with Morrison, “Anne had sat, mostly terrified, and studied the writer’s dreadlocks….she’d never worked up the courage to ask her first question: how were you supposed to pronounce Sethe?” ** That this would be her most burning question pokes gentle fun at the supposed gravity with which Morrison is treated throughout academia.

As I mentioned, I am with a group of high schoolers once a week, and they are indeed completely obsessed with where they will go to college and how they will get in. But I’ve also taught some college classes at a small, private liberal arts school – exactly the kind all those teens are striving to attend. The funny thing is, the college students don’t seem to care much at all about learning or the class material. And this just makes the whole endeavor seem that much more ludicrous.

None of this social critique on the ridiculousness surrounding college admissions is new (though perhaps the rise in tuition rates is adding another shade of crazy). This movie is technically about law school admissions but very similar to undergraduate admission. It came out in 2001, and, over ten years later, still rings true. These could be any of the characters in Early Decision:

Elle Woods introduces herself at Harvard…

* I’m pre-empting what I think will be the response from my University of Florida alum husband, who would probably agree that being a UF Gator is indeed a big part of his identity.

* *The name of the mom in Beloved who kills her baby. Played by Oprah Winfrey herself in the movie version.

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