Cum Laude, by Cecily von Ziegesar (New York: Hyperion, 2010).
Jacket Summary: "Dexter College is a small liberal arts college in the quiet town of Home, Maine. But it won't stay quiet for long with this group of freshmen. There's Shipley -- blonde and beautiful, the object of envy and more than a little lust. Determined to assert herself and to shed her good-girl image, she buys cigarettes and condoms, because that's what every self-respecting college girl does. Her edgy roommate, Eliza, came to Dexter to get noticed, and she has the attitude and the mouth to prove it. There's Tom. Handsome, privileged, used to getting his own way, he's a jock-turned-artist who thinks his paintings will change the world. Sensitive Nick, Tom's wake-and-bake pot-smoking roommate, wants to follow in the footsteps of his boarding-school hero. And then there's brother and sister Adam and Tragedy Gatz. The freckle-faced farm boy lives at home with his parents and his little sister, who does all she can to stop him from being a wuss.
"As Shipley, Eliza, Tom, Nick, and Adam find out, that first year of college is more than credits and cramming. Between the lust and the love, the secrecy and the scandal, they'll all receive an unexpected education. It's a time of shifting alliances, unrequited crushes, and coming of age. Find Yourself is Dexter's motto. And they are determined to do just that."
Opening Lines: "College is for lovers. At least, this one was."
My Take: Not great literature by any means, yet better than it had any right to be.
When a serious relationship ends, conventional wisdom tells us it's better to be alone for a while than to jump right into another one. And when I return from a week's vacation, treating myself to restaurant-sized portions and/or the guilty pleasures of someone else's home cooking, I somehow just want to eat oatmeal and veggies for a while.
In the same vein, sometimes when I've just finished a Really Good Book, I want some white space around it. As I'd hoped, Cum Laude delivers. While the characters themselves aren't particularly deep or compelling, they're just offbeat enough that this isn't a fatal flaw. Likewise, von Ziegesar's eye for the minute, often ridiculous, but nonetheless realistic details that comprise the freshman experience make the story both familiar and entertaining (in that quasi-awkward, "wow, I'm glad that part of my life's over" sort of way). Some examples: Eliza taking a work-study job as a nude art model, and milking every minute of it. Patrick, the homeless, Dumpster-diving Dexter dropout, floating around the edges of the main characters' consciousness. Every straight man in town developing a sudden, simultaneous obsession with the "It" girl du jour (in this case, Shipley). Tom deciding on a whim to be an art major, and going off on week-long, X-fueled painting binges. Shipley, who loses her virginity to Tom their first night on campus, staying with him mostly because he looks like good boyfriend material, even though she really has the hots for loner townie Adam.
Not surprisingly, other parts of the story line strain credibility. It may be that the characters' family relationships are supposed to be over the top, but still -- only Tom's and Eliza's parents seem remotely realistic or sympathetic (and we never actually see Eliza's on screen, anyway). Likewise, it's hard to imagine that even a relatively sheltered, still-lives-at-home freshman like Adam would opt to spend most of his free time with his 15- or 16-year-old sister (though I will say, for the squeamish among you, that von Ziegesar does resist the urge to add an incest plot line to the novel). I also don't buy the Dexter administration's blithely allowing Nick to construct a yurt on campus, or Eliza's blithe willingness to let Shipley's mom foot the bill (albeit unwillingly) for her new clothes.
Still kept me entertained for an evening, though.
- 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.