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.