So true, Fidel. So true. As I proofread college application essays and type our credit card number over and over again into sites that send and receive our son's test scores, I find myself wishing, too late, for a chance to do certain things over again.
DEAR INNOCENT, MISGUIDED LAURA OF YORE,
Four Great Novels with Painfully Realistic College Scenes
1. Intuition by Allegra Goodman, 2006
College featured: Philpott Institute, Harvard
Number of freshman applicants to Harvard in 2015: 35,023
Application fee: $75
Amount earned through application fees: $2,626,725
Percentage of Applicants Accepted: 6
Did my child apply there? HAHAHAHAHAHA. I am aspirational; not insane.
Opening paragraph: "All day the snow had been falling. Snow muffled every store and church; drifts erased streets and sidewalks. The punks at the new Harvard Square T stop had tramped off, bright as winter cardinals with their purple tufted hair and orange Mohawks. The sober Vietnam vet on Mass Ave had retreated to Au Bon Pain for coffee. Harvard Yard was quiet with snow. The undergraduates camping there for Harvard's divestment from South Africa had packed up their cardboard boxes, tents, and sleeping bags and begun building snow people. Cambridge schools were closed, but the Philpott Institute was open as usual. In the Mendelssohn-Glass lab, four postdocs and a couple of lab techs were working."
2. The Group by Mary McCarthy, 1963
College featured: Vassar
Number of freshman applicants to Vassar in 2015: 7,597
Application fee: $70
Amount earned through application fees: $531,790
Percentage accepted: 24
Child applied there? No. Poughkeepsie is too cold for him (see Note to Self #5).
Okay, so this breathless, engrossing ancestor of the Elena Ferrante novels is not actually set in college. The action begins three months after commencement, but because it concerns eight women from the same class at Vassar, it qualifies both as a full-body immersion in collegial intrigues and a cautionary tale about how snarky poets will be if you write a little too successfully (and sexily) after graduation. The book was #1 on the bestseller list for five months in the U.S. but banned in Italy, Australia, and Ireland. Louise Bogan sniffingly called it "women's secrets clinically told" and Robert Lowell said, “No one in the know likes the book” to fellow poet Elizabeth Bishop, a Vassar classmate of McCarthy’s. So if you don't get into Vassar or any of the Ivies, maybe you can go to a nice midwestern college and make friends with people who will send you Christmas cards and knit hats for your babies and buy your book and pretend to like it even if they don't.
3. After This by Alice McDermott, 2006
Colleges featured: Michael Keane goes to a university in upstate New York and his sister Annie Keane goes to study literature in England for her year abroad.
Number of freshman applicants to Syracuse University in 2015: 28,269
Application fee: $75
Amount earned through application fees: $2,120,175
Percentage accepted: 49
Child applied there? No because, again, COLD. (I tried to get him to apply to a school in Ireland but he rolled his eyes.)
Do not pay attention to the negative reviews on Goodreads that suggest nothing happens in After This. Everything that matters in life happens in this book. The inner life of a whole family unfurls. The chapter where Michael Keane goes to a college bar on Halloween is as real to me as any freezing cold autumn day I passed as an unfinished person in Syracuse. The evening Annie spends at a professor's house in England is as full of rueful epiphanies as a Chekhov story.
4. Brideshead, Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, 1945
College featured: Oxford
Number of freshman applicants: Unclear, but see this discouraging comment on College Confidential
Child applied there? No. My Anglophilia did not get passed down, fortunately, nor did the deep desire to leave the material world and live exclusively in an Evelyn Waugh novel.
The best way to persuade you to read this book is to start typing it into the blog word for word, but once I begin doing that, we'll fall under its spell and we'll be here all night, and then we'll miss the New Year's Eve turkey burgers I plan to make, which will feature homemade buns (we're an elegant family). So trust me that this is the book you want to read when all the applications are finished, or when you get your first acceptance, or when you get rejected from your top choice and you feel the world is ruined, because this book will remind you that the most wistful, gorgeous, searing novels are written by those who feel like outsiders, so if you are one, at least for now, you're in the best possible company.
Books by Tom and Laura McNeal