One-Minute Book Reviews

May 13, 2007

Susan Coll’s ‘Acceptance,’ a Send-Up of the College Admissions Race

A Harvard interviewer offers an underage applicant a drink in a novel set in a suburb of Washington, D.C., that teems with overachieving students and micromanaging parents

Acceptance. By Susan Coll. Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 286 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Getting into college is a game of Twister in this tart send-up of an ever-more-contorted application process. Acceptance has more bite and sparkle than the recent Admissions, which it resembles not just in its title but in its themes and structure. But overall it’s as uneven as the transcripts of the students who compete on its pages for spots at Ivy League and other universities.

Coll shows deftly the degradations that applying to favored colleges inflicts on students and parents in a gold-plated suburb of Washington, D.C., where a Harvard alumni interviewer offers an underage applicant a drink and keeps forgetting his name. And she offers trenchant social commentary as she follows several students and their families through the year before graduation. “Didn’t grades fall into the zone of private information, along with age and weight and financial net worth?” a mother wonders as she hears another boasting about a child’s straight A’s.

But Coll undercuts her story with clichés and digressive subplots, and she has such a slack grip on point of view that you never feel as much as you could for her characters. So her book ultimately works better as a critique of the admissions racket than as a novel. Acceptance underscores the folly of turning any school into a grail when, as Coll notes, “Study after study showed that there was no correlation between where a person went to college and his or her future happiness, or even earning power.”

Best line: Many good lines involve a fictitious college in upstate New York that surged in popularity after a statistical error boosted its ranking in U.S. News & World Report. An admissions officer laments that the school annually gets essays from students on “how the historical figure they most closely identified with was Harry Potter.” And until the error in U.S. News, “pretty much anyone who could manage to get the right postage on the envelope had a reasonably good chance of getting in.”

Worst line: Coll’s pervasive trouble with point of view is hard to show in a few lines. An oversimplified example involves the thoughts of a student named Taylor. Three times in one paragraph on page 228, Coll writes, “Taylor wondered” (or “she wondered”). Coll wouldn’t need to keep using that phrase if she had a lock on Taylor’s point of view because we would know who “wondered.” (This is not mainly an issue of redundancy – although it’s that, too – but of control of perspective.) All those “she wondereds” are tin cans tied to the bumper of the story, and similar phrases clatter throughout book. Count the clichés in this line for example of another sort of lapse: “She deduced that despite his best efforts to get a leg up on his peers, at the end of the day a Harvard acceptance was just going to boil down to the luck of the draw.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Acceptance was posted on May 13, 2007, and is archived with the May posts.

Editor: Sarah Crichton

Published: March 2007

Furthermore: Coll also wrote Rockville Pike and karlmarx.com: A Love Story.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Susan Coll’s ‘Acceptance’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Acceptance: A Novel

This guide was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may copy it for use in their reading programs. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to the site or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Susan Coll sends up the college-admissions race in Acceptance, a novel set in a Washington, D.C., suburb that seethes with brainy students and overinvolved parents. Will the junior class president nicknamed AP Harry (for all his Advanced Placement courses) get into Harvard? Will the troubled Taylor regret sending a kinky essay to a school that’s flying high after a statistical error raised its ranking in U.S. News & World Report? Will the athletic Maya impress any college after she quits the high school swim team? Behind these questions lies the larger one that drives Acceptance: Can any of these students — or their parents — emerge from the year-long frenzy with a scrap of sanity?

Farrar, Straus & Giroux has posted an extensive readers’ guide to Acceptance at www.fsgbooks.com that you may want to use at a starting point for your discussions. But like most publishers’ guides, that guide is part of a publicity campaign designed to sell books. It does not encourage criticism, quote negative reviews or suggest that you compare the novel to others on similar topics. For these reasons, the FSG guide may have less depth or promote a less lively conversation than you or your group would prefer. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but to raise questions not covered by the FSG guide.

Questions for Readers

1. In a blurb on the cover, author Kurt Andersen rightly calls Acceptance a “satire.” What does it satirize besides the college-admissions race at a suburban high school?

2. Acceptance has a strong element of social commentary. Early on Coll writes:

“Study after study showed that there was no correlation between where a person went to college and his or her future happiness, or even earning power.” [Page 12]

But some Verona parents act as though their children’s lives will implode if they don’t get into certain schools. Later the admissions officer Olivia Sheraton reflects on the inequities of being female when she notes that “with a skewed ratio of girls to boys applying to liberal arts schools,” the female applicants “were at a disadvantage before they knew what hit them.” [Page 263]

One test of whether social commentary works in a novel is that even if you disagree with the opinions in the book, you accept them because they fit the characters. Another test is whether a book still reads like a novel instead of an editorial. How well does the social commentary work in Acceptance?

3. The most popular satirical novels of recent decades include Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Jane Smiley’s Moo and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. If you’ve read any of them, how effective was their satire compared with that of Acceptance? Why?

4. Coll uses omniscient narration, going inside the heads of at least five people (Harry, Taylor, Maya, Grace, Olivia). Directly showing more than one character’s point of view is common in novels. But this technique can have a drawback: Unless handled with skill, it can create distance between the reader and characters or keep you from identifying with any of them. How well does Coll handle this issue?

5. Grace, the mother of AP Harry, is the moral center of the novel. Would Acceptance have been more effective if Coll had told the story from just Grace’s point of view or from hers and Harry’s? Would it have been possible to tell the story that way? In Bridget Jones’s Diary Fielding tells her story strictly from Bridget’s point of view. What effect does this have on how well each novel works?

6. A reviewer on Amazon.com (Constant Reader — Richmond, VA) thought that the “dozens of characters and several subplots muddy this satire about insecure teenagers (and their more insecure parents).” Do you agree or disagree? If you agree, which subplots or characters would you cut to strengthen the story?

7. One of the challenges of using multiple story lines, as Coll does, is that you have to tie them together at the end. How well did Coll do this?

8. Coll sprinkles her novel generously with clichés, such as when she writes that Grace “deduced that despite his best efforts to get a leg up on his peers, at the end of the day a Harvard acceptance was just going to boil down to the luck of the draw.” [Page 127] That sentence has at least five clichés. Clichés can be justified in fiction if they have a literary purpose – for example, if they are used for comic effect or to show that a character is dim. But using clichés is tricky. If you use too many, your writing may seem stale or your characters unoriginal. Does Coll justify her use of clichés? How?

9. Acceptance is set in the fictional suburb of Verona, a name with a literary history: Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, Italy. Serious writers typically have a reason for making such links. Why do you think Coll might have called her suburb Verona? Does this lead you to expect a tragedy? If so, is this misleading given that the novel is a comedy? Or does the novel also involve a tragedy?

10. Some people say that “real life isn’t like college – it’s like high school” (an idea that Meryl Streep used in a speech at Smith). How, if at all, does this apply to Acceptance?

Extras:

11. Acceptance is similar in its title, structure and themes to Nancy Lieberman’s Admissions (Warner, 2005), a novel about the race to get into elite New York private high schools. If you’ve read Admissions, how would you compare the books?

12. Acceptance also has similarities to Tom Perrotta’s Election (Berkley, 1998), a comic novel about a New Jersey high school election made into a movie with Reese Withersoon. Both books deal with teenage ambition in suburbia. If you’ve read Election, how would you compare the books? What conclusions might someone who knew nothing about American teenagers (or suburbs) draw from the novels?

13. Coll tells us on the dust jacket that she has a child in college but doesn’t say where. What effect would it have had on your view of the novel if you knew that Coll had a child at Harvard or another school in the book? What effect would it have had if you knew that she had child who had been rejected by Harvard?

14. How do you think the Harvard admissions office and others with strong ties to the university would react to this novel?

A review of Acceptance appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com
on May 13, 2007, and is archived with the May posts and in the “Novels” category.

You may also want to read:

Admissions. By Nancy Lieberman. Warner, 365 pp., $13.95, paper. Published: September 2005 (paperback edition). Students at Manhattan “feeder” schools (for grades kindergarten through eight) struggle for spots at top private schools in this light social comedy. Admissions has parallels to Acceptance that your group may want to explore. For example, the first sentence of Lieberman’s book calls the admissions race a “blood sport.” Acceptance uses the same phrase to describe the competition for spots at elite colleges. [Page 47] Coll has also used a format similar to Lieberman’s in following several students through the application process. Which author uses this technique more effectively? Why?

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please consider linking to this site or telling others about it. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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