Early Decision: A Novel Based on a True Frenzy
“Somewhere along the line we’ve failed students. We haven’t listened to them enough. We’ve told them what to say and how to say it, but we haven’t listened.” – Lacy Crawford
Lacy Crawford was an independent college counselor for fifteen years. Her specialty was helping wealthy families get their children into elite universities. During this time she was also “coming of age” herself, going to graduate school, bouncing around working in different non-profits, living in San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and London.
Her novel, Early Decision, basically tells her story and the stories of many of the families she worked with over the fifteen year period. It follows five Chicago-area high school students from August to January, as they enter the competitive college admission process. But the book is about much more. In an interview, Crawford explains her motivation for writing:
“I began to write Early Decision to understand how thoughtful, dedicated parents can be so driven by fear of their children’s futures that they are willing to place enormous value in a system that is reductive with regard to character, and that is, if taken to its current extremes, harmful to a child’s development.”
Crawford is a gifted writer. Her writing style and story-telling ability, alone, make the book a delight to read. That she cares deeply about her students and youth culture, as evidenced in the quote above, gives the book added value, especially for those who desire to see young people grow into healthy adulthood.
If you are a person who cares about youth and families as well, perhaps a parent, teacher, coach, pastor or youth leader of some kind, here are three reasons why you should read this book:
First, the novel exposes the competitive nature of the college admission process and the place of “college” within American culture. The main theme of the book is college, after all. But, of course, college is about much more than a degree or even an education. For many, it is about status. It’s about future ambitions and a symbol of success.
While the book does focus on the elites (elite families trying to push their kids into elite schools), all parents and youth workers will be able to relate to these wealthy families in some way. The parents want what they think is “best” for their child. They have the means to provide resources to get what they want. But the book should give us pause, no matter our financial situation, because it forces us to ask bigger, better questions about the place of “college” in our culture. What is college for? Why do we send our young people to college? What are good reasons for going to college? Do teenagers we know and love even want to go to college? How should we define success and the “good” life? If asking these kinds of questions makes you uncomfortable, don’t read Early Decision!
Second, the novel is about the relationship between parents and teenagers. More specifically, Crawford does a masterful job at helping the reader see why it is often so difficult for parents and teenagers to have meaningful conversations. Parents are scared their kids won’t succeed in life. Teenagers are terrified to fail and not live up to parental expectations. While reading Early Decision, I was constantly reminded of Chap Clark’s important ongoing research and book Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers. Clark’s research has shown that the defining issue for contemporary adolescents is “systemic abandonment.” Parents can be over-involved in the wrong things, and un-involved in the right things, both at the same time! Clark writes:
“We have evolved to the point where we believe driving is support, being active is love, and providing any and every opportunity is selfless nurture. We are a culture that has forgotten how to be together.”
At one point in the story, Crawford’s narrator makes a keen observation:
“Something came into clearer focus about the way the [wealthy family] had raised their girl, about the gifts they had attempted to give her, while overlooking the most ordinary things: taking her to visit refugee camps, for example, though they were never home for supper. As though they had taught her hand gliding while neglecting that boring bit about walking.”
Crawford is able to write in a way that is critical but not cynical. Her protagonist often empathizes with the parents’ primary concern (wanting what is best for their kids) while exposing the deeper pain the culture of achievement and abandonment has wrought. This makes the satire and criticism even more persuasive and ultimately more scathing. No one is innocent here. After reading this book, we all are forced to (re)assess our priorities and do a better job listening to our kids.
Third, the novel is about emerging adulthood and the challenges facing young people to “grow up” in today’s world. Not only does Crawford’s narrative provide insight about teenagers trying to get into college, but it also tells a story about a 27 year-old trying to make a life. Ann, the college counselor and central character, also struggles with career, educational decisions, romance and the prospects of marrying a boyfriend who just won’t commit. I was surprised by how compelling this part of the story was as well. This is a great book to read alongside of Spiritual Formation in Emerging Adulthood: A Practical Theology for College and Young Adult Ministry by David Setran and Chris Kiesling as well as The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—And How to Make the Most of them Now by Meg Jay.
Early Decision is about as good as it gets. The subject is important, the characters are authentic, the dialogue is believable, and the metaphors and analogies are literary without being snobby. I highly recommend it and anxiously await another novel from Ms. Crawford.