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Reviews Wed Jul 22 2009

Review: An Off Year by Claire Zulkey

an off year.jpgAn Off Year
by Claire Zulkey
(Dutton Books, 2009)

The progression from high school to college is purported to be a natural one in our culture. The junior and senior years fill mail boxes with evocative brochures displaying young adults studying with books under fully bloomed trees and laughing in ethnically diverse groups; the years fly by with visits to campuses and interviews with students and faculty; they are some of the most trying times - filling out applications, taking SATs - and yet some of the most relaxing - that wonderful knowledge that high school will soon be over. For most of us, that next step into college is a certain one, but what about those for whom it is not? That's the question Claire Zulkey explores in An Off Year, a young adult novel about a girl on the brink of entering that first hallowed year of undergraduate life, only to turn around and say "no."

Upon seeing her dorm room at Kenyon College, Cecily Powell turns to her father and proclaims, "I'm not going to stay here tonight...We're going home. Now." Thus, they turn around and head straight back to their home in Chicago where Cecily spends the rest of the year trying to figure what she wants and why that isn't college. While Cecily's father does not question her motives that first night, it becomes immediately clear that he has no intention of letting his daughter off the hook on the college issue. After a month of letting Cecily pace around their house, avoiding confrontations with her older sister Germaine who is home having just graduated college, Cecily's dad sets her up with a psychologist who, to Cecily's surprise, does more than just try to convince her to go back to school. It is during these sessions that Cecily learns that it is not just she that does not having everything in her life figured out -- nobody else has their lives figured out either.

This lesson is a tough one to learn, not just for Cecily, but for anyone at this point in their life who sees everyone around them making seemingly confident decisions but feels a complete lack of confidence in themselves. For Cecily, it is a challenge to realize that her best friend Kate, from whom she hears tales of hook-ups with boys and sleepless party-filled nights, is changing into a person that neither of them truly knows. It is a relief to learn from her brother Josh, currently in college in Wisconsin, that those partied nights can be forgone if desired. It is comforting to know that her best guy friend Mike, who transferred from Harvard to the University of Kansas to be with a girl, perhaps made a bigger blunder than she. And it is a surprise to figure out that, although Germaine has graduated college, she has no idea what to do next and is essentially sharing the same boat.

Where Zulkey succeeds here is in examining that sacred, allegedly carefree first year of college and showing the myriad of ways in which it can be a year filled with some of the greatest tension of one's life. But, as Zulkey says through the conclusion of her book, that's okay. That tension is normal and common and the mistakes one might make during this period of time do not necessarily have to determine the course of one's life thereon out. An Off Year makes for an encouraging read for anyone on the cusp of that treasured change, or for anyone having just come out of it thinking, as Cecily does, "Holy sh**...I can't believe I just did that. What now?" That "What now?" is something that Cecily, as do all of us, successfully learns can only be answered by oneself.

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Want to read more by Claire Zulkey? Check out her Diary, updated almost daily.

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