Saturday, January 24, 2015

Review: Getting In by James Finney Boylan

I have a senior and a junior in high school. Besides the fact that this means I am far older than I think I am, it also means that we are sunk deep in the college application and admissions process. And it's a far different process now than it was 25 years ago. In view of that, I wouldn't be me if I didn't look to books to validate my current experience, wondering where we might have gone right or gone wrong so far and how to change that for children two and three. James Finney Boylan's quirky novel Getting In won't really help me figure that out but it did offer me some needed entertainment as I followed along with a dysfunctional and eccentric blended family on college visits to many of the schools I myself once looked at attending.

Dylan and his father Ben are joining Juddy and his father Lefty, Ben's brother; Lefty's second wife Chloe and her daughter Allison; and Allison's boyfriend Polo on a college tour to visit Yale, Harvard, Bowdoin, Colby, Dartmouth, Middlebury, Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyan. They are all crowded into a huge Winnebago as they drive through New England and weigh the choices in front of the kids for next year. Dylan is self-effacing and terrified he won't get into college. He skipped a line on his SATs and his scores are dismal, not that he's told his father this. His father, on the other hand, is hiding the news that his start-up has gone belly-up and he has no idea how he'll even pay for Dylan to go to school next year. Juddy, while seemingly not so bright, is a confident, sought after jock type and Lefty is a very successful car salesman although he's always felt a little inferior to and jealous of his younger brother. Wife Chloe is quite attractive, something of a trophy wife, who married Lefty for the financial security it gives her and her daughter. Allison is a talented musician and she spends much of the trip fending off boyfriend Polo's sexual pressures. Polo is a pretentious little prat who exudes entitlement and who is not accepting Allison's stance on sex with very good grace.  Add all of these people together in one tight space for days at a time and there are bound to be conflicts and high entertainment for the outsider looking in.

As the family drives around visiting school after school, the already existing tensions between them are rubbed raw and the secrets they all harbor bubble up to the surface and threaten to spill out. Most of the story focuses on Dylan and his worries but each of the characters faces an unsettled future. It's not just the high school kids who are facing rejection and agonize over being found worthy, but the adults as well. Each and every one of them is looking for acceptance in some way or another. There are scenes that are hilarious and scenes that are poignant and some that are both at once. The train wreck that is poor, nice guy Dylan, as he interviews badly, fumbling for even one good thing to say about himself, will just break your heart, especially when he recognizes his incompetence. Each of the characters here are well drawn and all, with the possible exception of Polo, are sympathetic despite their sometimes unpleasant flaws. Boylan has captured beautifully the angst of the college-aged child, the worries of the parents, the cautious optimism of both as they tour schools, and the stress of the entire process. The novel is a bit dated, taking place in the 1990s but this tale of growing up and facing the future, perhaps the closest our culture comes to a rite of passage to adulthood, is still highly entertaining. And if you are in the midst of this yourself, it will give you the chance to step back and laugh at the whole thing a little bit, and a little levity never hurt anyone, especially when so much seems to be riding on the outcome.


  1. I like the premise of this one -- I have a college-bound high schooler too. And I can't resist dysfunctional family dramas.

  2. I realized yesterday that our daughter graduated from college 10 years ago. Wow, we are getting old. So happy not to having to deal with FAFSA's and SAT's and applications. Good luck and this book sounds entertaining and a little serious as well. We have college or almost college age nieces and nephews and we tease their parents. Have a good week!


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