publication date: 2010
Cecily von Ziegesar, the author of Cum Laude, is probably most famous for penning the Gossip Girl book series. I read those books a few years ago and thought they were great. A bit unpolished and unfocused, but fun and witty nonetheless. Von Ziegesar continued the good work in Cum Laude, a charming novel that maintained the fun of the Gossip Girl series but exceeded them in every way.
Cum Laude shadowed four college freshmen as they started college at Dexter, a “small, boring, vaguely crunchy New England liberal arts college” in the mid 1990s. One of von Ziegesar’s gifts is the ability to craft intriguing characters and she did not disappoint in Cum Laude. Von Ziegesar managed to imbue her characters with a sense of authenticity because they had just the right amount of pretension and self-seriousness. Further, as the plot of Cum Laude unfolded, von Ziegesar scattered revelations about its characters that were funny and realistic.
The four freshmen, Shipley, Eliza, Nick, and Tom, were at Dexter college for some vague notions of adventure and growth. Their adolescent fumblings were pitch-perfect. First was Shipley, a good girl from an upperclass family who imagined college as strolling “along the stone walks with a group of new friends, drinking hazelnut-flavored coffee from the Starbucks cafe, discussing poetry and art and cross-country skiing, or whatever people talked about in Maine.” Next was Eliza, who picked Dexter “to get noticed,” signed up to be the nude model in Portraiture 101, and hung a rabbit foot over her bed for its “perverse mix of tackiness, gore, and desperation.” Eliza’s crush was Nick, a pothead with allergies who read books like An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Nick’s roommate was Tom, another member of the uppercrust, who was a jock in high school but now turns to art and drugs as his “one and only hope.”
Von Ziegesar really honed her writing between writing the Gossip Girl series and Cum Laude. Many of the passages were poignant, insightful, or hilarious. For example, when Tom ate a chocolate chip cookie while stoned for the first time, “He’d never eaten anything so good in his entire life. . . . He could taste the sunshine that had shone down upon the heads of the chickens that had laid the eggs that were in the batter. The cookies were life-changing.” Another passage I loved was this one, which showcased the realistic self-seriousness of the characters that I mentioned earlier:
“Who? Nick?” Shipley dropped the dented pan they were expected to cook ramen in, denting it even more. “What happened? Is he okay?” Her heart beat hard and fast in her chest and she could actually feel her light blue eyes turn a deeper shade of blue. College was already so exciting.
I found Cum Laude to be fun, relatable, interesting, suspenseful, meaningful, and imaginative. However, I was thinking about it, and I wonder if von Ziegesar’s writing just clicks with my brain. Like maybe her writing is so much my cup-of-tea I can’t be objective about it. Accordingly, I’m only going to give the book a “worth reading” because even though I absolutely loved it, I don’t know that the majority of other readers would.
4/6: worth reading
I wanted to include some reviews that weren’t as positive as mine: