Title: Getting In
Author: Karen Stabiner
Acquired: From a publicist for review.
One Sentence Summary: A bunch of well-off California kids and their parents stress about the college application process for elite universities across the U.S.
One Sentence Review: Good writing saves what is otherwise an average book full of people with very few actual problems.
Why I Read It: I’ve gone through two college application processes, so the premise of the book sounded like fun to me.
Long Review: About half way through Karen Stabiner’s Getting In, I thought I knew what I was going to say in this review; I even had the introductory paragraph figured out. But then I read the last two pages and my whole idea of what to say about this book changed.
Getting In is the story of five different Los Angeles families that have one thing in common – the desire for their kid to be accepted into a top university. The students go to an elite private school and a nearby public school, but all worry about getting in (and affording) the school of their dreams.
My opinion of the book didn’t change in the last two pages because there was a big plot twist or anything. It changed because the last two pages were so well written that I got that end of a great book contented feeling that I was expecting, given my relative “meh” for the rest of the book.
Here’s a couple of paragraphs that, despite their location, don’t really have any spoilers (unless, of course, it’s a spoiler to tell you that in a book about a bunch of preppy college kids applying to elite colleges, it ends just fine for everyone):
Nora thought she was awake. She was about to call downstairs to ask Joel to turn on the coffeemaker, but when she opened her mouth to speak, she heard, instead, a little girl’s faraway laugh. It was not Lauren. Nora knew that laugh. This one was different, higher, younger, and coming toward her. Someone else began to laugh, and then Nora heard an unfamiliar deep voice, one that she would recall with a start in eight years, when Laura brought home a man who sounded exactly like that for a significant visit. She heard Joel’s voice, too, and her own intake of breath as she hoisted a little girl, the laughing girl, higher than she thought she was able.
In that sprung moment between sleep and waking, when it could be any day at all, past or coming, Nora saw her family in what might be right now or might be the future, because she could not tell for sure until she was fully awake. Everything she thought she knew as daily life could be a sleep story; she had dreamt of herself as a grown-up, after all, when she was only right. The moments she believed she had experienced, before, could all be far ahead in time.
It’s writing like that paragraph that kept me reading and enjoying this book. It’s a beautiful description of memory and time and family that is representative of the kinds of written gems the book is full of.
Getting In is generally a humor piece, but the biggest problem I had with it was that the entire plot drama – whether a bunch of well-off California kids will get into the fancy colleges of their dreams – was both absurd and, at times, a more than a little snobby. It just didn’t feel enough like satire to overcome some of my distaste for the character’s elitism.
I think a big part of this reaction is because of my own college application experience. I applied to three public colleges, all within the University of Minnesota system. Based on my grades and class rank, none of the schools were a stretch for me. My whole college application process was pretty much without drama. I ended up at a small, liberal arts college on the prairie and got a great education without going to one of the name-brand schools, even though I probably could have gotten in to one if I’d tried.
When I made the inevitable comparisons between my application experience and the experience of the students in Getting In, their drama felt completely insane. And at other times, it was just annoying. I mean, a Harvard legacy kid complaining that he has to go to Harvard after his guidance counselor pulls strings to get him off the waitlist feels dumb when compared to the real challenges a lot of kids face getting into and affording college.
I know the book is a sort of satire on the process, that Stabiner is as much making fun of the whole enterprise as she is writing about it, but there was just too much sympathy and seriousness given to the characters for the humor to feel entirely humorous.
On the other hand, part of what helped me enjoy the book was how good the characters were, and how real they felt (outside their college drama). As with The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, even the minor characters in the book had a story – everyone, from Rita, the secretary for the guidance counselor, to the musical director at the graduation ceremony, was written with details that made them feel important.
Filling in minor characters also filled in the world of the book and, at some points, balanced out the whole college drama. The book really holds together well, doing a fairly good job of keeping the reader interested through the application process and the inevitable ups and downs. I didn’t dislike the book while I was reading it, as much as I think this review is making it sound like.
But even with those parts that make it an enjoyable book to read, there’s an overall lack of drama to the story. From the beginning you sort of know everything is going to be ok, since it’s a book about a bunch of people whose whole lives have always been ok. Some kids don’t get into the schools they want, but when their second choice is Brown, it’s hard to feel too bad about the whole thing.
If you can tolerate that aspect of the book, Getting In is an enjoyable read. Stabiner’s writing style is lovely, and her book is written with a bemused affection and familiarity with her subjects that makes it fun – as long as you don’t stop to think about it too much.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!