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Review: Getting In by Karen Stabiner

Review: Getting In by Karen Stabiner post image

Title: Getting In
Author: Karen Stabiner
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2010
Acquired: From a publicist for review.
Rating: ★★★☆☆

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.

Other Reviews:

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!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Amanda August 4, 2010, 7:51 am

    I’m amazed at your ability to read so much nonfiction. I think I would get tired of a book like this after 5 pages…

    • Kim August 10, 2010, 6:16 pm

      Amanda: This one is fiction, actually, but it does have some nonfictionish stuff in it, since Stabiner went through a lot of this with her daughter’s college applications.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) August 4, 2010, 8:49 am

    The book does sound interesting. Having watched my son go through the college admission process, I think it’s become too much of a game these days. It was much easier in the dark ages when I went to school.

    • Kim August 10, 2010, 6:16 pm

      Kathy: It is very much like a game, which is annoying. I’m glad I never had to get into that.

  • Steph August 4, 2010, 9:11 am

    It’s weird that a work of fiction would have so few hurdles and such a peachy keen ending to it! I feel like it would be more interesting if the author would have put up a few more obstacles for these kids, something more major than only getting into your second choice Ivy school. It sounds like fun, but perhaps doesn’t have the depth that I would ultimately want (though I am obsessed with university admissions, having applied twice, much like yourself).

    • Kim August 10, 2010, 6:19 pm

      Steph: Yeah, I did think it was sort of odd. It is a fun and funny book, but I didn’t feel like there was a lot of depth to it. It would have been nice for a little more controversy.

  • Trisha August 4, 2010, 9:20 am

    I think I would be annoyed by this book too much to make it to the end! I couldn’t feel sympathy for the characters.

    • Kim August 10, 2010, 6:19 pm

      Trisha: I’m glad I finished it, but in retrospect felt like it was lacking a little bit of something.

  • Meg August 4, 2010, 2:18 pm

    Love the excerpt you shared, but I have a feeling this one would get on my nerves… generally speaking, I have a hard time feeling “sorry” for people with charmed lives — and who fail to see that. Being lucky but still being modest and knowing how lucky you are? That’s fine. But crying out for sympathy without a touch of irony, well… that’s a struggle for me.

    Thanks for the great review!

    • Kim August 10, 2010, 6:21 pm

      Meg: I also have a hard time with it too, which is part of the reason this book was hard for me to think about in retrospect. Some of the characters seem to recognize their luck, but overall the book seems to miss it.

  • Jenny August 4, 2010, 5:28 pm

    I am confident this would get on my nerves like crazy. I went to a public university and it was fine, and I do not feel my life would have been better (just more expensive :p) if I’d gone to a fancy place. I have very little patience with all the angst over private universities–underneath all the hysteria always seems to be the implication that attending a public university would be a failure.

    • Kim August 10, 2010, 6:22 pm

      Jenny: I don’t think mine would have been either. I think it might have been worse, actually. I don’t like the elitism sort of stuff that seems to run through the private university system.