This lightly fictionalized, timely and very enjoyable version of 2019’s Varsity Blues college admissions scandal takes the point of view of one of the students involved and examines the ideas of privilege and entitlement along with culpability.
So I have skin in this game in several ways. Firstly, I work at a fancy independent high school whose students frequently go to some of the most elite colleges – none were involved with the Varsity Blues scandal though many have the legacy and extremely wealthy cards to play. Also, one of our neighbors was involved and it is to my eternal prurient regret that when I heard a kerfuffle at 6am on March 12, 2019 I didn’t look out the window to see the FBI. And as I write this, my son and I are in Southern California looking at colleges for him. We are a very privileged family and he is a smart kid who goes to a school that gives him lots of advantages though we probably couldn’t donate much more than a picnic table. We even toured USC (which he LOVED of course) and had a bit of a snigger about the water polo trophies.
Anyway back to the book!
Chloe Berringer is the daughter of sitcom star Joy Fields and is thrilled when she gets into prestigious Southern California College against all the odds. But when the FBI arrest her mother for fraud it emerges that Chloe’s acceptance was based on a false claim that she’s a top pole vaulter and an SAT score that she didn’t achieve on her own.
The narrative is split into what happened leading up to the arrest and the aftermath. Chloe is at top notch Woods Valley private school where her grades are not stellar and she feels dumb compared to her best friend Nigerian American Shola (the author really loads Shola up as the face of the victims of the college scam – she is super smart and comes from a low income family who are depending on financial aid for her to get into college and she is waitlisted by SCC) and her crush Levi. It’s not clear to us (or her) if she’s not smart or maybe just doesn’t work that hard, but, either way, getting into SCC feels amazing until it becomes humiliating.
This novel attempts to answer the two questions which were on everyone’s lips at the time. Firstly, why did the parents do it? Though the answer seems to be simply because they can, for Chloe there’s a bit more to it. Did they think she was stupid? Her parents just say that they wanted the best for her but did they really? The idea of prestige is certainly briefly touched on and I’ve got to tell you how much that looms in many parents’ lives despite assurances of “whatever is the best fit”.
The second question we were all asking at the time, is how did the students not know what was going on. Chloe spends a lot of time examining the idea of her culpability – she didn’t know what her parents were doing, but she did have her suspicions and does nothing. She knows she doesn’t have ADHD but allows her new “college counselor” to get this certified to give her extra time on the SAT. And why are her parents making such an enormous charitable donation to this counselor’s pet charity? Chloe concludes in retrospect that she was “aggressively oblivious” as the clues (not to say actual evidence) were there but she chose to willfully ignore them.
There is also some discussion, as there was at the time, of the legal “backdoor” ways that very rich (white) people use their money and privilege to secure college places for their children through large donations, and the unfairness of legacy is also lightly touched on (hey we feel that too! Both my husband and I are British and legacy isn’t a thing there).
There is a lot about Chloe’s privilege using Shola as both a mirror and mouthpiece. Once again Chloe is blithely oblivious of the depths of her privilege and accepts what is handed to her on a plate without much thought. Her microaggressions against Shola are numerous and Shola pushes back more times than you’d hope she’d have to do in real life before realization would set in, though in Chloe’s case, it never really does.
Buxbaum manages to keep Chloe mostly sympathetic and her family is charming but also outrageously privileged. As a contrast to this, offstage, we have Cesar, Chloe’s 1st grade reading buddy whose mother is undocumented. This is something that gives Chloe genuine fulfillment and a place where her parents money has made a difference – it is perhaps a light at the end of a very dark (but comfortably padded) tunnel.
There is of course some delightful and vicarious schadenfreude to be had from this book, but it also gives teen readers some support that if the worst happens, you will survive it and maybe even thrive on your new path. Particularly if your family is well off.
Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital ARC.