Jessica Burnstein, 45, is a successful partner in an LA law firm in spite of the challenges of being the single mom of 16-year-old Emily. The two are embarking on a seven-day trip to visit colleges organized by Excelsior Educational Excursions, or E3, a college admissions consulting company. As Jessica explains, “One of the selling points of E3 is that they take care of everything on the tour; you just have to pay a ridiculous sum of money.”
They are both leaving behind situations that have each of them on edge. Jessica has threatened to quit her job if her boss John doesn’t promote her mentee, Valentina. John is opposed for largely sexist reasons, and Jessica is outraged over it.
Emily did something at school that has her upset, but she won’t share what is going on with her mom (or the readers).
The narration alternates between Jessica and Emily, and both are amusing and interesting in different ways. Jessica is appalled over the whole competition to get into college situation, which, as she notes, “is part political campaign, part American Ninja Warrior competition.” Emily, who is adorable, witty, and delightful, albeit still a snarky teenager, is much more attuned to her mother than her mother knows. Emily, like her mother, is feeling stress over the college selection process, although for very different reasons.
This passage by Waxman shows in a nutshell what Emily is like. Emily and her mom find out that a schoolmate, Alice Ackerman, and her mother Dani are also on the E3 tour. Alice and Emily were friends when Alice first transferred to her school, and Emily explains why they aren’t friends anymore:
“. . . after a few golden weeks of total focus, she shut down on me like an eclipse, and for the last two years she’s left me alone, out here in the penumbra (see, I did pay attention in Physics). But that’s what she’s like. She spins at the center of the high school universe and her gravity pulls people in, but she spins so fast that most of them get flung back into the outer rings. (Dude, I am killing this out space metaphor; Mr. Libicki would be stoked.)”
Although Jessica hopes the trip will be about “reconnection and bonding” in addition to finding a suitable school, Emily actually has absolutely no interest in going to college. She feels that doing her best is never enough for her mom, who seems oblivious to what Emily would like for her own life instead of what Jessica would like for Emily’s life.
As for Jessica, she laments that the “golden years” of Emily’s childhood passed around the time Emily turned thirteen:
“She woke up a teenager, and all the skills I’d learned were useless, and all the time I’d fought to have with her was spent waiting for her to come home from hanging out with friends she’d much rather talk to than me.”
Furthermore, Jessica bemoans, “Somewhere she has a list of my buttons, I swear. There’s probably an app for it.”
But the two have a great deal of love and respect for one another, and as the trip progresses, they do in fact get to know each other better, and “reconnect and bond” just as Jessica had hoped. Along the way, there is plenty of Waxman’s trademark humor and snappy dialogue to keep us engaged.
Evaluation: Both mothers and daughters will be able to relate to the two points of view presented in this very pleasant, entertaining story. There are some side plots to spice up the action of a college tour trip, and rewarding growth on the part of the protagonists.
Published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2020