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Cum Laude (book review)

May 16, 2010

Cum Laude
Cecily von Ziegesar
Hyperion
June 2010 $23.99 272 pages

Cum Laude follows four students from their freshman orientation through the end of their first semester at the fictional Dexter College, a tiny and kind of upscale Maine school. Tom is a preppy jock type, the unlikely roommate of Nick, an amiable stoner hippie from New York by way of New England boarding schools. Eliza is caustic about her roommate, Shipley’s blond perfection and Ralph Lauren sheets.  Thanks to Allison at Hyperion for sending me this to review. She called it a “guilty pleasure,” and boy was she right.

One thing von Ziegesar does well with each of her central characters is allows them to break out of typecasting to a better degree than you usually see in this kind of novel. I laughed at Shipley driving herself to school and teaching herself to smoke and chew gum, because she felt like these were vices a girl should cultivate on her way to college. For all her mouthiness, Eliza is shy around evidence of Shipley’s money, and surprisingly tender. Nick’s enough hippie to want to build himself a yurt on campus– but nature makes him sneeze and get hives. And Tom, former sporty jock type, finds himself experimenting with art classes, drama, and drugs.
I would have liked to see more from some of the supporting characters- the androgynous Professor Rosen and her daughter named Beetle, upperclassmen nicknamed Sea Bass and Damascus. However I would have liked to see less of the two townie kids, Adam and Tragedy. (Even if we’re going for deliberately quirky, I’m not sure I buy the idea of hippie parents naming an adopted daughter Tragedy. I also have trouble getting my head around naming a girl Shipley, but I’m at least willing to buy that as a posh prep school convention.)
von Ziegesar is also the author of the Gossip Girls series. The college world she’s created seems like an offshoot of the Gossip Girls universe, at least as I understand it. Lots of money for the kids to sling around, designer labels, drugs, keg stands and sex. All sort of wedged uncomfortably against a hippie-ish remote, Maine campus. At various points, all of the students we follow around make reference to not being at Dexter out of a passion to be there. Townies, legacies, safety schools, woodland fantasies. They’re there by default not design. Can’t picture them going to reunions.

Not sure how I might react to reading this if I were younger, in college, maybe. I can’t imagine reading it in high school. It would feel way too lurid, especially Tom’s climactic scene, which I have to admit skimming because it was a weird mix of perilous and cringey.

Except for the studying and coffee (name-checking Starbucks made me laugh- are they on every campus now?), this bears almost no resemblance to my own college memories. I was far geekier and not much of a partyer. Babylon 5 marathons rather than beer kegs. There’s an element of anthropological curiosity to reading a book about Dexter’s college world. It does make me remember some of the classes I took first semester, and wish I’d taken more history… still not sure what I was doing attempting two semesters of computer science.

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