Ivy League Chick Lit: Extracurricular Exposé

A good exposé is irresistible, especially if it reveals the ugly side of something pretty and bursts some bubbles in the process. See The Devil Wears Prada, in which the glitzy world of fashion journalism is stripped of its glamour, or VH1’s Behind the Music, in which rock stars get the blues just like the fans who love them. And see also Ivy League chick lit, a genre very distantly related to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, in which Harvard undergrad Quentin Compson made a suicidal leap into the Charles River.

Not quite schadenfreude, the Ivy League tell-all thrives on the premise that the country’s best students are no better off than the kids who ate their dust in the scramble for college admission. Unlike Kaavya Viswanathan’s ill-fated How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, the two newest additions to the glut of Ivy-themed teen lit skip the race and delve right into the college years. Robin Hazelwood’s Model Student chronicles the sad life of a fashion model at Columbia, while Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl (a self-proclaimed “Ivy League Novel”) follows a bookish junior from Eli University who gets “tapped” for a secret society traditionally reserved for rich, politically connected males. Both books promise to spill the beans, and although young readers are likely to be thrilled by all the sex and swear words that come tumbling from the same bag, the authors deliver little in the way of juicy revelation.

Secret Society Girl succeeds all the same. Ms. Peterfreund’s descriptions of the ambitious Amy Haskel’s collegial life are both vivid and amusing, and although the second half of the book focuses too much on her secret society’s rather dull battle for women’s rights, Amy herself is charming enough to be forgiven. Her ceremonial initiation into Rose & Grave—modeled after Yale’s famous Skull and Bones—runs a little long, but Amy handles it with dignity and spunk, even as the boys in the club pretend to drown her inside a coffin and threaten to make her a sex slave in their castle.

Amy’s story is both witty and endearing, peppered as it is with rhetorical questions and moments when she emphatically addresses the reader as “dude.” As she discusses her dorm-room drama, her study sessions at the library, and the awkward interactions she shares at the lit-mag office with her “friend with bennies,” Amy proves herself a rather appealing girl. She constantly makes lists to better sort through her thoughts (“WAYS TO KNOW WITHOUT ROLLING OVER TO LOOK AT HIM,” from the chapter “Morning After”; “THINGS I DISCOVERED THAT CALMED ME DOWN,” from “Barbarians”), and she’s as forward about her desires and goals as she is about her disappointments. She’s tough, too: “Show me a pining man and I’ll show you a pussy,” she says in reference to a boy who’s just told her that he loves her. To top it off, Amy knows about Said and Lévi-Strauss, and although she spends most of Secret Society Girl finding her place in Rose & Grave, we learn that during her sophomore year, she tried to read Borges in Spanish.

In Ms. Hazelwood’s Model Student, meanwhile, narrator Emily Woods begins by warning her readers that the ugly-duckling-turned-cover-girl fairy tale is “total crap.” “Life doesn’t work that way,” she writes in the prologue, “and I don’t know why we ever pretend it does. After all, did Einstein ever sigh, lean forward, and earnestly confess he was once the dumbest guy in the class?” The answer, technically, is no, but few children manage to leave primary school without learning from some smart-aleck that Einstein was a lousy student.

Emily’s story, set in the late 1980’s, begins in her hometown of Milwaukee, where she spends her days studying and finding photos of pretty girls to glue onto her wall. She falls into modeling when her father, an advertising agent, puts her in a Wisconsin tourism ad wearing a hat that looks like a piece of cheese. After the shoot, a photographer tells Emily that she could be a model (she has a killer smile), and it doesn’t take long for the girl to convince her mother, an aging social activist who reads Mother Jones and calls her cat Malcolm X, to drop $1,000 on a course at the Tami Scott School of Modeling. The school turns out to be a scam—the women enrolled “were not only not tens, but didn’t add up to tens when you included the gals on either side of them”—but Emily makes the best of it. After some local jobs and a few false starts, she moves to New York, scores herself an agent and enrolls at Columbia. From there, we learn the hard way that modeling is a very boring career, in which the highs are rare and the lows tedious. We also learn that models often have eating disorders and drug problems.

Eventually, Ms. Hazelwood starts giving Emily cocaine to help keep her awake during the endless photo-shoot scenes, but she forgets that most readers will have to get through them sober. Sadly for us, Emily works constantly, and although she’s ostensibly enrolled at Columbia throughout most of the novel, the reader only hears about it when she gets her grades at the end of every semester. The college only seems to exist so that Emily has something to fight about with her worried mother—and someplace to drop out of when she decides to focus on her career. Ms. Hazelwood’s point, obviously, is that modeling leaves no room for a proper adolescence, but it’s unfortunate that Emily’s career overwhelms the novel, leaving little room for her experiences as a college student. The combination of those two lifestyles could have been entertaining, and the pun in the book’s title suggests that it should have been Ms. Hazelwood’s main focus.

Compared to the radiant Amy Haskel, Model Student’s Emily Woods is a piece of wood, with no interests and no ambitions beyond magazine covers and (maybe) a diploma. That aside, the two girls are quite similar: Neither strays too far from the archetypes we know so well from teen fiction and film. As they hyperactively deliver their confessions, Amy and Emily sound frightened and skeptical of the worlds they attempt to penetrate, but gleeful and self-consciously wise as they let their readers in on the secrets they have learned. The top may look better than the bottom, but the girls who narrate these stories want to set the record straight: The drugs up there are just as dangerous as the ones down here, and the men no less cruel.

These two books are mostly hawking old news, seldom pulling the curtains on anything less predictable than runway anorexia and nasty corruption within the old boys’ club. Quentin Compson drowned himself in the Charles River for our sins, and all we can muster, it seems, is a minor cocaine habit and some careless sex. Secret Society Girl remains readable (thanks to Amy), but Model Student collapses on Emily’s brittle, bony shoulders. If these two books reveal anything, it’s that modern Ivy League intrigue is not so intriguing after all. And so, in the grand tradition of the exposé, the bubble is burst.

Leon Neyfakh (Harvard class of 2007) is majoring in history and literature.