I have not reviewed a book here for some time, but last week I finished The Last Autumn, a timely novel on the senior year of Alex Williams, Princeton University, Class of 2015. The author, Daniel Scavone, a college friend and a Henry Rutgers Scholar in English Literature, has sent his own children to three of the most selective of schools: Yale, Vanderbilt and Carnegie Mellon. Read The Last Autumn, and will should have no doubt that he listened to them as well as their friends as Alex introduces you to the Princeton University community.
Alex Williams is an ordinary young man admitted into extraordinary circumstances, no fame before college, nor elite prep school education, brought him to Princeton. He rows varsity crew, majors in English, earns good grades, and has an introductory appreciation for Mozart. His best friend, “Boder,” is the son of the senior senator from Virginia. His girlfriend, Amanda, is daughter to a wealthy alumnus and former crew Olympian, Ronnie Fallon, aka ‘The Cruiser’. Alex is a member of O’Neill, a non-elitist (and fictional) eating club, Princeton’s counter to fraternities and sororities. Alex does not enter Princeton with their connections, but he does not feel as much pressure on himself to live up to expectations. His senior thesis, thinner than most, is a play about bowling! I was led to believe, throughout the book, that Alex took Princeton seriously, but sometimes he did not take himself, and sometimes his crew coach, too seriously.
I liked Alex as the main character in The Last Autumn, because he is the person that you hope will be admitted to Princeton, rather than someone who believes that he is entitled to be there, and once there, entitled to do what he wants. Last year Princeton accepted less than six percent of the applicants who wanted to come, 62 percent of the class was admitted through Restrictive Early Action. More than 35,000 students wanted to be in this class. That’s over 8,000 more than the number who wanted to come in 2011 when Alex Williams would have been a freshman. Back then, Princeton accepted 2,300 students for a class of 1,300. Seven years later, only 1,900 were offered the opportunity! When a university takes less than six percent of its applicants, its hard to believe that anyone has the right to feel entitled to be there.
Through The Last Autumn, and a pair of admissions and engineering tours of Princeton that I took after reading the story, I felt that Princeton students were likely smarter than my classmates, and probably Dan’s, at Rutgers. But I did not believe that the fictional students were any more aware of what they wanted to do after they graduated, even if they had a feeling that Princeton would “be there for them.” Being a Rutgers alum I had to laugh as I read this exchange between Alex and Boder, as they drove through downtown New Brunswick on their way to meet their dates:
“Man, this town seems so much cooler than down our way,” Boder remarked. “Tell me again why we didn’t go to college here?”
“Because we wanted to be guaranteed an elitist job when we graduated.”
“Oh yeah, right,” Boder replied, lighting up a one hitter he had pulled out of his pocket.
But the students who took me around the Engineering Quad were not Boders. They were certainly motivated towards their academics and their careers, and coming out of school with a few good friends and their sanity. I never heard more praise for engineering labs, especially a semiconductor “clean room,” than I have ever heard on an unscripted college tour! But I also found the student guides to be very likable people, certainly more than Boder was in the novel.
I have lived near the Princeton University campus for 16 years, eaten plenty of burgers and crepes at PJs, shopped at clothing stores on Nassau Street, gone to movies at the Garden Theatre, bought new and used books at Labyrinth Books as well as Princeton t-shirts at the university store, and I’ve been to a few Princeton basketball games. I also know a few alumni fairly well. I have had all of these experiences as a “townie,” and many more, except for being an actual Princeton student!
If you want a better picture from the student’s view, and you cannot spend many days on campus, read The Last Autumn. If this story gets into Labyrinth Books and the nearest Barnes and Noble, I would expect it to fly off the stacks into the bags and backpacks of students, parents, Tiger hopefuls, and maybe counselors and admissions officers!