“It’s 1983 in Wallingford, New Jersey, a sleepy bedroom community outside Manhattan. Seventeen-year-old Edward Zanni, a feckless Ferris Bueller type, is Peter Panning his way through a carefree summer of magic and mischief. The fun comes to a halt, however, when Edward’s father remarries and refuses to pay for Edward to study acting at Julliard. So Edward turns to his misfit friends to help him steal the tuition money from his father. Disguising themselves as nuns and priests, Edward and his friends merrily scheme their way through embezzlement, money laundering, identity theft, forgery, and blackmail. But along the way, Edward also learns the value of friendship, hard work, and how you’re not really a man until you can beat up your father–metaphorically, that is.”
How can you not pick up a book with a subtitle saying “a Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater?” The moment I laid eyes on the book, I knew I was going to pick it up, buy it, and love it.
And I did all three.
Edward Zanni is as zany as a character who loves musical theater can get. And although he can be a bit much… Okay, a lot much… sometimes, his character is still vulnerable enough that you can’t help but root for him. Which, I feel, is very important when writing a very flawed protagonist. (I’m looking at you, Sutter Feely.)
That said, I don’t think I would have liked this book as much as I did if it weren’t for the ensemble. Edward is surrounded by an amazing group of supporting characters who make his misadventures fun and never cringe-worthy. From the vivacious Paula who, surprisingly, is the most scrupulous of their merry band, to Kelly who is just full of surprises; from Doug, the jock who keeps breaking stereotype, to Natie, the budding criminal mastermind. And Ziba. The most understated character who underlines the exact reason why this book is different from all the other young adult coming-of-age novels that are out right now.
How I Paid for College doesn’t hold back from the fears, the mistakes, the fuck-ups, and the sexual confusion of teenage years. They’re all here, and they’re all presented without fanfare or big build-ups to epiphany. The novel doesn’t rely on the formula of what a coming-of-age novel is supposed to be, because real life doesn’t follow any guidelines–so when we hit the emotional beats? They’re all the more relatable.
But what I love most about the novel is how it doesn’t try to make readers cry. Throughout the heartaches and the hardships, Edward Zanni remains through to the character he’s sticking with: the Ferris Bueller type mentioned in the book blurb. He cannot be unhappy. He cannot be caught crying. So when it does finally happen, he’s experiencing a breakthrough that is also shared with the viewers.
It feels earned.
And then, although already implausible, the novel grants what anyone living in a musical world needs in their stories: an outrageous happy ending. And yet it works. And it’s the perfect end to the whole affair.
And now I can’t help but rave about the novel. It’s definitely something anyone who loves the world of theater, and who has been a part of theater, will enjoy. Marc Acito wrote a gem of a story that’s truly entertaining and, although set in the 80s, still relevant.
Now, if only he had done the same for Allegiance…