An Off Year
Author: Claire Zulkey
# of Pages: 213
Favorite Line: "For the first time, you can do whatever you want as long as it feels like you're doing it because it's you. It takes a while to find out what that really means, of course. Sometimes you think you're doing something because you think it's fun but you realize you're just supposed to. So it's cool when you realize what you really want to do and what things just aren't your scene. But it's not, like, mind-blowing or anything."
Cecily is about to turn the key in the door of her new college dorm room when she realizes... she does not want to go to college. She turns around and tells her father that they are going home. He surprisingly acquiesces and there begins Cecily's year off. She does not go to college right after high school. Frankly, she doesn't do much of anything. She sleeps late every day, watches a lot of daytime television, tries to keep in touch with friends who no longer resemble who they were in high school, and gets in her brother's and sister's hair. Her father, realizing she has no plans of any sort for her life, signs her up for meeting with a psychologist, and then with a college counselor. He then asks her to do work for him at the university he works in and to audit some classes there as well. Cecily, in speaking with her friends, her counselors, and her family, makes it clear that it wasn't the school she's against- it was just going to college. All the change. Being away from her father. Having to pretend to enjoy going out and getting wasted. What follows is a year in which a socially awkward and shy (but deliciously sarcastic and funny) girl learns what it's like to grow up and face up to what life is really like.
I read this book, like The Order of Odd-Fish, in preparation for the young adult author panel I'm putting together. This one is much shorter and lighter than Order of the Odd-Fish, but it has the same sort of tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecatory humor that Odd-Fish has. I think Zulkey and Kennedy will be fun to see in a discussion together.
As someone who is taking a year off herself, to figure out what she wants to do and how she's going to get there, this book resonated a lot with me. It's scary to not conform with what everyone else is doing. To feel a little left behind. To feel like you're completely insane. But at the same time- everyone feels that way. Zulkey explores the topic in a very human way, being really sympathetic to her character but also making no efforts to hide her flaws. Cecily is a fun girl, but she's spoiled. She's not ok with things changing. She's worried about the unknown. She doesn't do anything earth-shattering in her year off- she doesn't travel or start a non-profit or write a novel. She just needs time to figure herself out. Come to terms with the changes going on in her life. Get to know her family and maybe let go of a few friends.
I think the book was very realistic in that not everything was tied up neatly at the end- we don't really ever get to know Cecily's mother, we don't see how her relationship with her sister evolves, and we don't get to see if she actually does well in college. But that is true to life. Cecily's best friend from high school warps into a complete stranger in college- who among us doesn't know how that feels? She's a really easy character to cheer for and enjoy. She's quirky, with a dry sense of humor and a lot of heart.
This is a short review, and I hope that doesn't detract people from reading this book. It's certainly not the sort of book I usually read, but it was refreshing. It was light and fun and hilarious, but also hit the spot. A lot of kids who apply to college would like reading it; maybe it's better to read it after they start college, so they'll understand it better. It's also good for anyone who sometimes looks in the mirror and thinks, "What in the world am I doing with my life?" As you'll see in the book, it's ok to wonder that, to think that there must be something that you're missing. You're not the only one. And even if the book doesn't have the answers, and doesn't offer sage advice, it's nice to know you're not alone.