I was expecting Cum Laude, the “grown-up” novel by the author of the Gossip Girl series, to be a guilty pleasure of the variety you hold on your lap at the coffee shop, lest anyone observe you enjoying such lowbrow fare.

All the sweeter, then, to discover that Cum Laude is a smart and compassionate portrait of one girl’s first year in college, perfectly capturing the mix of loneliness, exuberance and exploration that marks freshman year.

Shipley Gilbert is a beautiful girl from a wealthy Connecticut family (OK, so Cecily von Ziegesar didn’t roam too far from the Gossip Girl viewpoint). She enrolls in a woodsy liberal arts college in Maine (Dexter College, “a shoo-in for every prettiest college campus award in the country”), the same school her brother attended before disappearing years ago.

As per campus tradition, Shipley and her sarcastic roommate Eliza have to spend their first night camping in the woods. They’re matched with athletic Tom and his wheezy, pothead roommate Nick. Von Ziegesar never met a stereotype she didn’t like (the beauty, the jock, the druggie and the smart-mouthed outsider—check!). Throw in a supporting cast of painfully earnest professors in Birkenstocks and you’ve got the recipe for one big cliché of a novel.

And yet Cum Laude is more than the sum of its parts. Shipley isn’t just a dumb blonde partying her undergrad years away. Yes, she hooks up with the jock, as expected, but their relationship is anything but wholesome, especially when Tom starts taking ecstasy to mask his uneasiness in this new environment. When someone starts mysteriously using and returning her car, Shipley suspects it might be her long-lost brother. Her response is at once poignant and surprising.

This novel is worth a read for anyone who fondly remembers freshman year—even if you have to hold it low in your lap.

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