Books May 2007

New Fiction

Susan Coll’s new novel about the top-tier college-admissions game tries hard and amiably, but it needs to be wait-listed behind worthier spring fiction. Acceptance follows the luck of some affluent suburban-D.C. high-school seniors, including “AP Harry,” a charmless version of Michael J. Fox’s old Family Ties character, a kid so obsessed with getting into Harvard that he perceives the world through a compulsive syno‑ n­ymizing brought on by too much SAT prep: “He looked up and saw an extremely tall, thin (lanky, gangly, awkward) man with a shock of white hair …”

Carried by the bright overwriting of higher-end chick lit—coffee gets “swilled” instead of drunk, and headaches tend toward migraines—this novel is just as caught up in the application process as AP Harry himself. A reader can almost see Coll’s bulging files of clips and downloads about safety schools, weighted GPAs, National Merit scholars, student tour guides, alumni interviewers, the U.S. News list of top liberal-arts colleges, and those “résumé-enhancing” summer jobs that involve humbling service to Third World unfortunates. All of this homework chokes off narrative momentum: A second and more interesting plot, about the admissions office of Yates University in upstate New York, dies upon the ivy vine like an elective the overcommitted novelist has forgotten she’s signed up for. The book ends up being too busy to question seriously the very phenomenon it’s supposed to be satirizing—a predicament that proves ironic (paradoxical, conundrum-like).

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Thomas Mallon is an Atlantic contributing editor. His newest book, Fellow Travelers, will be published this month.

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