Fresh by Margot Wood
(this is an affiliate link. purchasing through this bookshop link helps support indie bookstores and this blog at no cost to you)
Overview: Elliot isn't really sure why she's going to college. It's the next step that people take in life, I guess. She also isn't sure why she's at Emerson. It sounded better than Ohio State. She has no plan, no clue and how to approach college life. Quickly, Elliot gets sucked into a whirlwind of all the worst college tropes- the endless cereal bar, hooking up with everyone in the Little Building, not paying attention in any of her that classes she doesn't really want to be in anyway... the list goes on. She quickly forms a tight group of friends on her floor, but even those connections get tested as the year progresses. Eventually, Elliot is forced to realize that she needs to care about the academic side of college, and she craves closer connections than a trail of hook ups. Elliot, like most college students, has a lot of growing up to do in her first year, and if you're craving a true coming of age story, you'll find it here in spades. Overall: 5
Characters: 5 Elliot and I have almost nothing in common, but I absolutely love her. She's hilarious and reckless and loud and a total hurricane. If I lived Elliot's life, I would be in a constant state of panic. But she's also endearing and kind and you can always tell her heart is in the right place. I got immediately sucked into the book by Elliot's emotional goodbye with her dad and her utter "what now" confusion after drop off. It was incredibly cathartic, and I think in that moment, Elliot and I bonded. She makes a satisfying main character because she leaves so much room for growth as she follows that classic college story arc of finding her place in the school and learning how to reorganize her priorities as an adult.
To help Elliot on this journey, she has a cast of friends. From Micah and her roommate Lucy, Elliot gets grounding and emotional support- someone to trade gossip with and send panicked texts back and forth about crushes and romantic missteps. They go through rough patches, like any good friends, and they come out the other side of them. Micah is struggling to prove to his dad that he made the right choice studying journalism at Emerson instead of going to USC like the rest of his family (which is, ironically, where I happen to go to college). Lucy is from the Boston area and is working around the clock to help maintain the family business while funding her own eduction and double majoring as a first generation college student. Even though we don't get to dig too deep into their lives, Elliot's friends do reflect the experiences of many college students. I wish we could've dived into their lives a bit more, but Elliot narrates in extremely close first person (That's not really a thing, though. Maybe this is just me trying to find a way to say that Elliot is very self centered in a way that's not awful) so it wouldn't really make sense to focus on them.
Filling out the background, we get various love interests that come and go for Lucy, Elliot, and Micah, and we get to know Elliot's RA, Rose. Rose plays a super important role in the story that I won't spoil now, but she's also an incredibly important mentor figure as she tries from the very beginning to ground Elliot a little in her wild college experience. There's also a smidge of a sister story woven in as Elliot navigates how family relationships are forced to change when siblings are split apart.
If you love a full world of really rich characters, this probably isn't the book for you. The world feels full, vibrant, and realistic, and there's a large revolving door cast to keep it interesting, but Elliot is telling you this story very directly, and she will only be telling her story. Everyone else purely exists for background embellishment. And while that would normally bug me, it works here. I'm honestly impressed that Margot was able to create such an interesting and engrossing character that she could power the book all by herself.
Plot: 5 This book moves fast. It never lags or gets boring. Even though I'm in the midst of my second week of college and my life has never been more hectic, I finished the book in 4 days. I found myself wanting to make time to read it. I read almost 40% of the book in my first sitting. The plot is incredibly dynamic and always pushing forward. It accurately mimics college life in that way; it's always running too quickly to get boring. The individual tales of triumphs and pitfalls power the plot, but the overreaching story is also quite impressive in reflection. You really get to watch Elliot grow up.
Writing: 5 This is the first book I've actually purchased for myself in a very long time. I didn't end up getting an ARC of the book, and I honestly wasn't even sure if I wanted to read it until I heard Margot on the First Draft podcast. After listening to the episode, though, I knew it was a must read. I love college YA more than anything, and I'm always pushing for there to be more stories in the space. I just wasn't sure how I'd connect to this book since it's billed as this story of a girl who gets to college and is only interested in partying. If that's what you want to do, awesome, but that's not really my approach to college, so I wasn't sure if I'd relate to Elliot's story at all. If you have those reservations too, don't worry. This book understands the college experience way more intimately than the summary would have you believe, and that's what I was able to understand going into it from listening to the podcast.
This is one of the most realistic portrayals of college I've seen. It has all the weird feelings about moving out and being on your own, the confusion around being told you have to have your whole life planned out from the moment you step on campus, and the uncertainty of how you're supposed to behave when your entire life is flipped upside down. This book gets it, and it's a good reminder that everyone around you at college is just as lost as you are. It made for an extremely cathartic reading experience and just what I needed in my first few weeks at school. Also, major props to Margot for how much of an immersive story she tells and how the setting is never neglected. I love that she committed to setting the story at Emerson and went fully on with all the little details that made the school come to life. I'd toured Emerson when I was looking at colleges, so I was able to really understand how realistic Margot made that world. It's hard a hard aspect of writing to truly pull off.
Another difficult area that she masters effortlessly is that extremely close first person I mentioned earlier. Elliot addresses the reader from page one. She has inside jokes with the reader. She even leaves footnotes throughout the text. And the odds of that becoming cheesy and awful are quite high, but here it just works. I can't imagine the story being told any other way, and I love unconventional storytelling formats when they make sense for the character and the plot motivations. My only tiny complaint is that I read this book on my Kindle and all the footnotes are kept at the end of the chapter, so I had basically forgotten what the notes pertained to by the time I got to read them, but they were even entertaining without context, so I didn't mind them much. Elliot is direct and unashamed and in your face. She won't be everyone's cup of tea, but I'm glad that Margot brought her to life for those of us who needed her.
Also, I'm so thankful this book broke me out of my absolutely horrible reading slump that I've been in since early August. I'm hoping I can keep up that momentum.
More on Reading, Writing, and Me: