Following five students on their college application journey, the novel is told from the perspective of Anne, a private admissions counselor who has seen it all and has the added cache of having attended an Ivy League school herself. She's in her late twenties and still not certain of what she wants to do with her own life but she knows how to shepherd students through the application and essay writing process to get them into the big name schools. She mainly works for overly involved, wealthy parents who often see the college their children go to as another status symbol. This college season Anne is working with Sadie, who doesn't have the grades for Duke but whose father is a trustee and whose mother is a nationally known life coach so she's a slam dunk for getting in; Hunter, whose mother has been driving and directing his life since he was small, never allowing him to just be a kid; Alexis, who can write her own ticket because she is the whole package but whose parents still want to micromanage things; William, a meticulous and buttoned up boy who secretly has far different dreams for his future than his parents do; and Cristina, a first generation immigrant who has the brains it takes to make it out of poverty if she can just catch a break and a scholarship with a college admissions office.
As Anne works with each of the students, helping them find their spark and passion, finessing their essays, deciding which college to shoot for, and oftentimes placating their parents even as she runs interference for the kids, she is facing upheavals in her own life. Her actor boyfriend has moved from Chicago to LA without her. She's not certain how many more seasons of college admissions she can take, privy to the unhappiness and problems of these accessory kids and their fierce parents. And she feels as if she has sold her soul to the devil, playing fast and loose with Cristina's future in an effort to raise her up despite knowing that this disadvantaged child deserves the chance as much if not more so than the other four whose parents are paying her well to make their dreams come true.
Told through Anne's observations, emails with her students, and their evolving personal essays, the novel is very immediate and visceral. The desperation of the parents comes through loud and clear, as does their inability to let their children find their own future, the one right for them. And just as in real life, the students themselves run the gamut from involved and caring to passive riders on their parents' trains. Each of the kids, smack in a stressful and seminal time in life, changes and grows in some way. If nothing else, they discover the things that bring them joy and how to match that up with what they envision for college. Some of the students find the strength of character to push to make the process theirs and to start living their own lives while others, despite the tantalizing glimpse of what could be, remain trapped in a vision not of their own making. Anne herself also faces her own decisions about her future during this year, trying to remember and tap into her own passion even as she teases out the students'. The novel's subtitle Based on a True Frenzy is completely accurate. And the major feeling I'm left with towards the college application process is a nerve-wracking despair, which tells me that Crawford has done a fantastic job of capturing all the conflicting feelings about wanting to launch my babies into the world and wanting to keep them little. She's really drawn realistic teenagers and I have to hope that she hasn't caught me as a parent in her portrayal of the parents in the book! Anyone facing the competitive world of college admissions soon should be lining up to read this book and those who aren't facing it yet should read it too, if only to decide whether their hearts can handle the stress of launching a child into the world.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.