Some time Sunday, in between wrapping up Littlehazel's birthday party and getting ready for our family Fathers Day celebration, I read Patricia Weitz's College Girl (Riverhead, 2008). Stop me if I've said this before, but I'm a sucker for college coming-of-age stories, and this one didn't disappoint, though it was painful in places. It struck me as a cross between Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep and I Am Charlotte Simmons (which I reviewed here): the story of a working-class girl who goes off to pursue her dream of attending an elite college, and finds the academic challenges pale in comparison to the social ones.
There are differences, of course. Natalie Bloom, College Girl's attractive but shy protagonist, attends not the fictionalized Ault or DuPont, but the University of Connecticut, transferring in midway through her junior year after 2 years at a far less prestigious commuter school. She quickly convinces herself that her fellow students have already formed their cliques, and the few occasions when her roommate manages to drag her out do little to dispel this impression. Therefore, she spends most of her free time in the safety of the library, drawing some comfort from the fact that she's succeeding academically, if not socially.
This all changes when she meets Patrick, a tall, pot-smoking slacker from a well-to-do background who seems oddly reminiscent of Prep's Cross Sugarman. Unlike Cross, Patrick seems sympathetic at first, and genuinely interested in drawing Natalie out of her shell and getting to know who she really is. Over time, though, the relationship devolves into a purely physical one, even while Natalie keeps hoping it will turn into more. As with Prep, you can't help wondering exactly why this is; was Patrick just using her for sex all along, or did her reluctance to be herself with him prevent them from developing a real relationship? At any rate, between making herself available to Patrick on demand and just plain mooning over him, she's left with little time for studying, and her grades show it.
While I really enjoyed reading College Girl, and found Weitz's portrayal of Natalie's insecurities and depression to be spot-on (so much so that it was hard to read at times -- can you tell I still have some baggage from my own college years?), I have to admit that objectively, both Prep and Charlotte Simmons were stronger books. In part, this is because Weitz focuses almost exclusively on the personal; in contrast, Sittenfeld and Wolfe make the boarding school and college environments characters in themselves. Wolfe's DuPoint in particular does an exceptional job of pinpointing many of the excesses and contradictions of a selective college, and then ratcheting them up a notch or two, successfully walking the line between documentary and parody. Likewise, with the exception of Natalie herself, none of the characters in College Girl are particularly well-developed. The hints Weitz drops suggest that some of them -- Faith, the older roommate whose fashion sense is firmly mired in the '80s; skanky next-door neighbor Sasha; running buddy and potential friend Gwen; and recurrent hottie Jack -- might be worth knowing better, but we never quite get there.
I also have to quibble with the too-tidy way in which College Girl wraps everything up at the end. I was glad to see Natalie break free of the increasingly-unappealing Patrick's spell and begin to turn things around, but her transformation seemed a bit much for one semester -- particularly the new boyfriend, whose refusal to take "no" for an answer leads to a Rhett-and-Scarlett style sexual awakening on Natalie's part. (70 years ago, Margaret Mitchell could be forgiven for this; today, Weitz should have known better.)
This sound a bit harsher than perhaps it should. I did enjoy the book, and would certainly recommend it to others as a good summer read. Unfortunately, though, it just didn't have the blow-you-away-and-stay-with-you impact its predecessors did.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.