Early Decision tells the story of Anne, a young woman working as an independent college admissions counselor in Chicago. Anne once had dreams of a literary career, but now she assists wealthy high school students (and their nervous, hovering parents) with the long process of applying to college and writing their essays.
On Saturdays, Anne volunteers with a group of lower-income students at a public high school, whose dreams (in most cases) are vastly different but no less ambitious. Yet while she helps her students (including a brilliant Guatemalan girl from that public high school) find their voices and take charge of their own lives, she’s stuck in a holding pattern, afraid to pursue a different career or find real love.
I have worked in academia for my entire career: first at my alma mater in West Texas, then at a liberal-arts-cum-performing-arts school in Boston, and now at Harvard. I agonized over my own college application essays more than a decade ago, and like Anne, I earned a graduate degree in English and then wondered what on earth to do with my life.
So I saw myself on so many pages of this novel – both in Anne and in her bright but hesitant students. They are radiant with potential, excited but terrified, firmly convinced that where they go to college will have a profound effect on the rest of their lives. (They’re not wrong about this, but as Crawford notes, where you go to college is not the same as who you are.)
Crawford’s writing is sharp, clear and insightful, peppered with literary allusions and keen insights about the current state of higher education (and the panic surrounding elite colleges) in the U.S. Her characters come alive through their essay drafts and emails, as well as through their conversations with Anne. And while Anne herself is frustratingly self-effacing at the beginning of the novel, she grows into herself by the book’s end, gaining the confidence to grasp – for the first time in years – a life she really wants.
Witty, heartbreaking and keenly observed, Early Decision is both a compelling story and a lovely meditation on learning to build a worthwhile life. (Also: Lacy and I are now Twitter friends, and she is lovely.)
This post is part of the TLC Book Tour for Early Decision. I received a complimentary copy of the book, but was not otherwise compensated for this review.