Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Early Decision," by Lacy Crawford

Many of us, especially those involved in the higher education world and/or those who have children, are fascinated with the admissions process and everything that leads up to and accompanies it. Applying to colleges, at least the top-ranked colleges, has become a sort of arms race. More and more students apply for the limited spaces, agonizing over their grades, SAT scores, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, and the all-important “personal statement” essays. Sometimes it is the parents who are most invested in the process. There have been a few books -- both nonfiction and fiction -- about this process recently. The latest is “Early Decision” (William Morrow, 2013), by Lacy Crawford, a novel. The main character is Anne, a private college counselor. The novel covers one application season, and focuses on five students with whom Anne is working to help them write the perfect essays and maximize their chances of admission to top-tier universities. The focus is on the five students and their evolving interests and abilities and choices; an almost equal focus is on the parents of the five students. A major “message” of the novel is that parents are too involved in the process, and are too invested in ensuring their children are accepted to name-brand (preferably Ivy League) colleges. The portrayals of the students are empathetic, as it is clear that some of them have different desires regarding their educations than their parents do. In contrast, the portrayals of the parents are scathing. Anne walks a fine line: she is hired by the parents to help their children get into high-status schools, but she also wants to help the students discover their true interests and preferences, which might not always be found at these most prestigious colleges. We also learn about Anne’s own issues and insecurities. She is highly educated but can’t figure out what she wants to do with her life; she is successful at what she is doing, but doesn’t see it as a lifelong career. She has also spent too many years with her boyfriend, a handsome, dashing actor who is unreliable, unsupportive, and unfaithful. By the end of the book, especially as explained in an epilogue, there are some happy endings and some not-so-happy ones…just like in real life. This novel succeeds as an exploration of the craziness of the “Harvard or die” mindset among some parents and thus among some of their children. It also succeeds as a story that catches and keeps readers’ attention to the end.

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