If people weren’t aware of it already, Felicity Huffman’s and Lori Loughlin’s recent escapades highlight how significant it is for some families to see their children gain acceptance to elite colleges. And while these Hollywood parents may have taken matters into their own hands, for the most part it’s high school seniors themselves who have to decide just how far they’ll go to distinguish themselves from their peers. Two new books find a way to inject humour into this situation and offer alternatives to succeeding at all costs.
In Ben Phillippe’s Charming as a Verb, Henri “Halti” Haltiwanger lives with his parents in an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side; his Haitian immigrant father is the building superintendent. Halti’s on scholarship at a prestigious private school, known for its high Ivy League acceptance rate. But he believes that without the wealth and connections of his classmates, success will come down to him charming the right people, including admissions officers and alumni.
Halti has honed a laid-back nonchalant persona, while his upstairs neighbour and classmate Corinne Troy is all intensity and effort. When she uncovers a secret about Halti, she uses it to blackmail him into giving her some lessons in how to be chill in social situations. It doesn’t take long for them to fall for each other. They’ve dubbed themselves members of the O-Generation – “children of Oprah and Obama” – feeling pressure to be perfect and to be many things at once, “in order to shake off the affirmative action cloud floating over your head.”
Halti gets the girl early in the book; the second half is dedicated to getting into Columbia University, his Ivy League school of choice. (Corinne has early acceptance at Princeton.) This leads to some extremely bad decision-making. The climax actually had me yelling out loud at the book – a rare and exhilarating experience.
Philippe is a fun writer with Gilmore Girls–level prowess for pop cultural one-liners that span eras and genres. (He namechecks House Bolton, Chadwick Boseman, Tinker Hatfield, Tony Stark, Daisy Buchanan, and more.) He also has a firm grasp on how life in New York City might shape a first-generation teen’s identity and goals (even if Philippe himself grew up in Montreal before attending university in Manhattan). Halti, who sees his city as “hella expensive,” walks rich people’s dogs and window shops for vintage Air Jordans. The New York of the novel is a place where working excruciatingly hard can pay off (Halti’s mom becomes a firefighter at age 50), but also where a young immigrant family enjoying green space at a city university campus gets ejected for loitering.
Just two books in, Philippe has developed a witty, observational, and insightful voice that is unabashedly youthful and secretly Canadian.
In The Year Shakespeare Ruined My Life, getting into a good college is important to high school senior Alison, but it’s secondary to a coveted year-end honour. When the book opens, she’s standing in front of the school’s trophy case ogling the valedictorian plaque. Alison never states exactly what the draw is for her, although her best friend points out, “You’ve wanted to be valedictorian since you found out what the word meant. Which, by the way, was weirdly early.” And this desire is enough to make Alison the lap dog of anyone connected to the teachers making that decision.
That’s how she gets saddled with working on the school’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, prophetically dubbed Ye Old Shakespearean Disaster by Alison’s sarcastic younger sister. With only the slightest chance it will actually help her, newly minted theatre producer Alison is now responsible for finding a crew, drumming up money, and helping the eccentric drama teacher/director cast the play. This results in Alison’s nemesis (a sexist valedictorian rival) and her crush (a sexy artistic type) landing the lead roles of Theseus/Oberon and Hippolyta/Titania.
Debut author Dani Jansen has tapped into an inviting premise: high school and Shakespeare have paired well in a whole slew of teen movies. But Jansen doesn’t make full use of the Bard – the thematic connections between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the book’s plot are slight if there at all, and there’s not nearly enough Shakespearean wordplay and few references to the text, except for a funny little scene in which the know-it-all director dons Bottom’s donkey head. The whole valedictorian situation is woefully unexplored as well.
What Jansen does get across is the pressure of senior year: grades, applying for scholarships, extra-curriculars, best friends, first loves, and in Alison’s case theatrical disasters. “Our show had generated very little buzz, despite the gossip spreading about the unitards,” Alison recognizes with only a few days before opening night. “We were out of money, and our male lead was heartbroken. Still, we limped along.”
Jensen keeps the story moving, has assembled a cast of characters worth rooting for, and has woven two quiet and nuanced coming-out subplots into the story. While not exactly dreamlike, The Year Shakespeare Ruined My Life is a pleasant midsummer night’s read.