Precious Things by Stephanie Parent
Publication date: June 4th 2013
Genre: New Adult Contemporary
Isabelle Andrews isn’t supposed to be here. She isn’t supposed to be a freshman at Hartford Community College, she isn't supposed to be living at home and working at her dad’s failing bakery, and she definitely isn’t supposed to be taking Intro to Electronic Music Production, a class that will get her nowhere toward her goal of an English Lit Ph.D. by age twenty-five. But when her dad’s latest business fiasco eats up her college fund, Hartford Community College is exactly where Isabelle finds herself—and thanks to her late enrollment, she doesn’t even get to choose her classes. Stuck with Electronic Music and way-too-easy English courses, Isabelle is determined to wallow in all the misery she feels entitled to.
But community college brings some unexpected benefits…like the fact that a certain overworked, over-scheduled Electronic Music professor hands over most of his duties to his teaching assistant. His tall, green-eyed, absolutely gorgeous teaching assistant. When TA Evan Strauss discovers Isabelle’s apathy toward electronic music—and, well, all music—he makes it his mission to convert her. The music Evan composes stirs something inside Isabelle, but she can’t get involved—after all, she’ll be transferring out as soon as possible.
Still, no matter how tightly Isabelle holds on to her misery, she finds it slipping away in the wake of all Hartford Community offers: new friendships, a surprisingly cool poetry professor, and most of all, Evan. But Evan’s dream of owning his own music studio is as impractical as Isabelle’s dad’s bakery, and when Evan makes a terrible decision, everything Isabelle has gained threatens to unravel. Soon Isabelle discovers that some of the most important lessons take place outside the classroom…and that in life, as in Evan’s favorite Depeche Mode song, the most precious things can be the hardest to hold on to
What the Heck Is the College Experience, Anyway?
In Precious Things, I really wanted to capture the so-called “college experience”…but the fact is that the college experience encompasses many different things, and is different for every person. There are the classes themselves, the social aspect, the dorms, being away from home for the first time, just to name a few. For me personally, since I am an extremely private person, the whole dorm culture/roommate aspect was so overwhelming (in a bad way) that it completely dominated my first semester. I know I had some great classes, was able to participate in a dance company for the first time in my life, and met some amazing people…but when I think back on that time, I get an overwhelmingly negative feeling, mostly because of all the dorm ickiness. (September 11th also happened right after I started college, which certainly didn’t help, but that’s a whole different post…)
My experience with dorm life is actually one of the reasons I chose to set Precious Things at a community college without dorms, with my main character still living at home. I wanted to show that not everyone has the same stereotypical “college experience,” and that missing out on it isn’t necessarily such a bad thing—and I also wanted to focus on other aspects of college, like the classes and the people.
At the same time, I tried to show hints of alternate “college experiences” through Isabelle’s interactions with her high school friends. Because of over-enrollment, Isabelle’s friend Jenny ends up sharing a two-person dorm room with two other people at the University of Maryland—and believe me, those dorm rooms are tiny enough with just the two people they’re meant for! This actually happened to a few high-school friends of mine, and they were absolutely miserable. And even at a top-tier school like Stanford, where Isabelle’s ex-boyfriend Andrew enrolls, roommates cause problems, with Andrew spending almost every night in the library to avoid his roomie (and especially his roomies “guests”). I knew plenty of people who went through this kind of thing as well, and at a time in your life when you’re dealing with a completely new environment, separation from parents and home, and most likely a much greater amount of academic work than you’re used to, it can be completely overwhelming. Contrary to popular belief, college students do need sleep, and that can be a challenge with strange people coming in and out of your room at all hours of the night!
And then there’s the whole social aspect of college…the frat parties, the drinking. Late in the book, Jenny explains to Isabelle why she decided to join a sorority, and her feelings about the situation pretty much match mine. (Although no, I never considered joining a sorority—I am way too much of a loner for that!) Here’s what Jenny says:
“I guess rushing was…it’s been my way of coping, and I’m glad I did it. College isn’t exactly like I thought it would be. It’s like…” She thinks for a moment. “Remember those huge parties in Ajel Cho’s basement, when he would invite the entire school?”
“You know how we acted like everything was so great, like we were so happy and excited to be there, when really we’d rather have been home watching movies and eating ice cream?”
I laugh. “Yeah.”
“Well, college is sort of like that, but…all the time. You have all this freedom and you’re supposed to be having the time of your life, but sometimes you just want to escape and curl up on the couch to watch a movie, except you can’t, because…the party’s in your bedroom. And besides, there is no couch other than the ratty stained one in the dorm common room, which people are probably either hooking up or passed out on. Oh, and you’re also supposed to read more than you ever have in your life, and write twenty-page papers, and study for exams while all this is going on.”
So for Jenny, and Isabelle—and me—college is a lot more complicated than just having “the time of your life.” I hope I reflected that in Precious Things…and yes, I just might be courageous enough to tackle the dorm environment in more detail in my next NA novel!
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College Is Expensive…Financial Aid Is Weird…and How My Own Financial Experiences in College Inspired Precious Things
In my NA novel Precious Things, main character Isabelle Andrews ends up at a community college, even though she’s been accepted to schools like Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, after her father’s mismanagement of his business leads to the loss of her college fund. Readers who aren’t too familiar with the American college system (especially private colleges, but state schools too) might wonder why she doesn’t just apply for more financial aid…but unfortunately, it’s not nearly that simple. Isabelle’s experience was actually inspired by my own past as an overachieving, somewhat naïve teen, and by my own struggles with the application process. Now I did go through this process in 2001, over ten years ago (eek, I’m old!), but my sister went through it much more recently, and I can say that it’s only gotten harder, and colleges have only become more expensive.
American colleges determine financial aid packages through the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which students need to fill out every year before the deadline set by their particular college, usually sometime in May. The FAFSA looks only at your family’s income for the previous year, which doesn’t always provide an entirely accurate picture of your finances. In the case of my family, my father had gotten a substantial raise the previous year, and my mother had gone back to work only a few years earlier, so the FAFSA made our family’s financial situation look better than it actually was. In addition, unless you come from a very lower-class background, the FAFSA expects your family to contribute a LOT of money toward college tuition—so much that, if I had attended one of my top-choice colleges, my sister would have had to drop out of private school. Looking back now, I realize that attending one of the top-choice schools where I was accepted—NYU, Barnard, Sarah Lawrence, Bryn Mawr—probably wouldn’t have made a huge difference to my college experience. But at the time, going to a college I felt very unsure about felt like the end of the world. (If you’re wondering, I went to Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, with the help of a merit-based scholarship.)
In Precious Things, Isabelle’s situation is a little different: her father used her college fund to refinance his business’s mortgage in July, way after she would have filed the FAFSA and had any financial aid awarded. At that point, she’d have to wait an entire year to re-file the FAFSA and maybe be offered more aid. (Isabelle actually does try to get around this in the book, but I don’t want to give too much away!) And even if she was given more aid, there’s still the fact that the FAFSA’s calculations often expect the family to pay more than is really possible. For Isabelle, who has a younger brother and comes from a single-parent household, this would definitely be an issue. There are also the college-related costs that financial aid doesn’t necessarily cover, such as books, which can easily run several hundred dollars a semester, and living expenses. And yes, there are student loans—but considering the cost of private colleges, that’s a lot of debt to saddle yourself with at such a young age. As for merit-based scholarships…no matter how good a student you are, there are a lot of good students out there, and it’s incredibly hard to get substantial scholarships, particularly at the more prestigious schools.
While I wanted Precious Things to be a fun novel, I also wanted it to be a realistic reflection of the college experience—and for many college students, finances are a huge issue. It’s unfortunate that getting a higher education in the U.S. is so incredibly expensive…but I hope that reading about Isabelle’s situation strikes a chord with some readers, and serves as a reminder that a change of plans isn’t always as bad as it seems!
Stephanie Parent is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC and attended the Baltimore School for the Arts as a piano major. She moved to Los Angeles because of Francesca Lia Block's WEETZIE BAT books, which might give you some idea of how much books mean to her. She also loves dogs, books about dogs, and sugary coffee drinks both hot and cold.