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KIM GREENLEY WAS CRYING. The word spread through the classrooms, the corridors, and by evening nearly all of the 125 seniors at The Bantrey School and a substantial number of parents knew that Kim Greenley, a B-plus student, whose rendition on Music Night of "When I Marry Mister Snow" had received a standing ovation, whose father was an orthopedist and whose mother was an administrator at Lenox Hill Hospital—how bona fide can parents be—Kim Greenley, of the sweet, round face and blue eyes, a little chubby perhaps, but why should that matter, Kim Greenley, with a boyfriend at Cornell, which placed her off limits to the boys and nonthreatening to the girls, bright, likable with serious credentials, left the office of the college advisor for the crucial beginning-of-senior-year college assessment meeting, crying. Her parents solemnly followed her, the father biting his bottom lip, the mother grim and looking close to tears herself. Outside the advisor's door they paused for a few words between themselves along the lines of how could this possibly happen, as Kim moved on, shaken.
The next group waited on an oak bench, Karen and Rob Burrows and Tommy, their seventeen-year-old son. Tommy had known Kim since kindergarten and rushed over to her before she descended the stairs out of the building, wanting to offer solace, something; her parents had momentarily abandoned her. She looked at him through wet eyes, her world collapsing. "Tommy, he said I'll never get into Brown."
The Burrows family was on deck to see the college advisor with this bleak foreshadowing, like the Lenny Bruce routine of the comic who bombs at the London Palladium, the comic just about to go on and the female singer on stage ahead of him asks the audience for a moment of silence for the boys who went to Dunkirk and never came back. Not a good sign for the Burrows group, this Kim Greenley business. The advisor's secretary, a middle-aged woman of no discernible charm, appeared poker-faced as in I've-seen-them-cry-before, and said, "Mr. Kammler will see you now."
They filed in. Karen Burrows was a slim brunette, forty-nine, dark brown eyes, a patrician nose, a thin, elegant face, nearly professionally beautiful, who could have qualified for one of the Ralph Lauren ads where they finally deign to show women of a certain age. She was wearing a charcoal suit, a business meeting suit, and what else was this other than a business meeting? Rob Burrows, a former miler for the University of Pennsylvania, was six feet tall and still slim at fifty-one, with light brown eyes, and thinning brown hair which he cut short, an athletic man with a rugged face and firm jaw, a New Yorker who resembled someone from the heartland, which served him well in his business. Twice a week, or more often when she could, Karen went to a gym before going to work. Twice a week Rob ran around the Central Park reservoir, only once around, about a mile and a half, but he ran with his miler's stride faster than anyone else his age or virtually any other age, his attempt to beat another kind of clock.
They had been divorced for four years and communicated for the past three weeks leading up to this meeting with e-mail, a boon for ex-spouses who wished to spend as little time as possible on their exes, but needed to get a certain amount of ground covered. In this case, when is the meeting, when will you get there, what will we ask, what will we say? Tommy officially lived with his mother. A joint custody arrangement was modified on request of the parents in the second year of the divorce when they realized the logistics of his shuttling between apartments turned him into a spinning bear in a penny arcade. Rob, the more substantial wage earner with a playground equipment manufacturing company, paid the big-ticket items like Tommy's private school tuition. Karen, with a crafts retail store in SoHo, handled most of his day-to-day bills. Generally, Tommy spent weekday nights with his mother, every other weekend with his father. They alternated his school vacations, but the last summer he had been away as a counselor at the children's camp in Vermont where he had spent his camper summers. He was spindly, five feet ten, long brown hair, with his mother's slender face, his father's light brown eyes, the good-looking son of attractive parents. He walked with an athletic grace, ironic since he was a young man with little interest in athletics. He sometimes ran around the reservoir for exercise and occasionally joined his father when Rob ratcheted down his speed a couple of notches to accommodate him. Tennis instruction in camp revealed him to be a possible player. After talk of his trying out for the Bantrey tennis team Tommy learned the squad was picked by the contenders playing each other winner-take-all, which he found too competitive. With his noncompetitive nature, honed at the noncompetitive summer camp he attended, he gave up the idea of the team, so there would be no varsity tennis line on his college applications.
Martin Kammler, the college advisor, was in his fifties, a stocky man of five feet eight who had taken to dyeing his hair reddish to get the gray out. An unimposing person physically, he was at this time of year arguably the most powerful person at The Bantrey School. The rumors. For their graduating class, June of 2001, the competition for colleges was going to be even worse than the year before. That a conspiracy exists. That Mr. Kammler makes deals with the admissions people at the colleges. That he steers students away from schools to make slots available to other students—someone who is a shoo-in to get into Harvard or Yale is asked not to apply to Brown where he might block the one who might get in, but might not get into Harvard or Yale, and so on down the line. That the colleges give him quotas. That he's guaranteed a certain number of slots. That he'll say to the admissions people, take this one or don't take that one, and they listen to him. That he has his preferences. If he likes you, he'll fight for you. How else to explain why Bantrey, not a boarding school like Exeter, simply a Manhattan private school, placed so many students with the top colleges? And never, never ignore his advice. If he says apply to Columbia, early admission, rather than wait and try for Princeton, that's it, he knows, he can make it happen.
The office was small, spare, a few bookcases with college catalogs and college guidebooks, professional certificates on the walls, the room a charmless laboratory where the doctor of colleges made his prognoses.
"So, Tommy, Mr. and Mrs. Burrows," the voice warm, friendly, a paradox considering the verdicts rendered here. "I see your grades are pretty consistently C pluses and B minuses."
"Could be I'll do better this year." The remark for appearance's sake. He had no expectation of doing better in his senior year. He did what he did year after year, an average student at Bantrey with no peaks and no valleys, but no peaks.
"Tommy is conscientious. I can't remember the times he's missed school," Karen said out of anxiety.
"Good attendance is a given," Mr. Kammler said without even looking at her. I was told, don't be aggressive in the room, Karen thought, let Tommy be the focus. I shouldn't have said that.
"Your SAT score," referring to Tommy's file. "1020 the first time. You are planning to take it again?"
"He is," Rob said quickly then caught himself. Damn it. We talked about this. Don't volunteer anything. Mr. Kammler didn't look at Rob either.
"You should," he said to Tommy. "Have you been tutored?"
"Years ago we never officially recommended SAT tutoring, but then everyone was doing it, so we capitulated. Now I can't see an argument against it. I'd like to see you improve on your score."
"All right," Tommy said.
"There's a new company, Power Testing. I'm not fond of the name, but they do very rigorous tutoring, one on one. Expensive, but they get results."
"We'd be prepared to pay for it," Rob hurried to say.
"The issue is whether Tommy is prepared to do it," Mr. Kammler said.
"I would do some more tutoring," Tommy said.
"Good," Mr. Kammler responded. "Now what else do we have?" thumbing through his folder. "You did your community service at an after-school program in the Bronx?"
"In a rec center."
"I like the feel of that. And there's cartoonist for the school paper. You did a good one last week, Tommy. What was it again?"
"Two kids are talking and one of them says, 'You think I can list my SAT tutoring as community service? My tutor is, like, poor.'"
The slightest trace of a smile appeared on Mr. Kammler's face.
"So it's social observation."
"Yes, Mr. Kammler."
"Too bad there's not a way of quantifying 'social observer.' We'll have you list 'cartoonist for the school paper' and submit some of the cartoons. That should give you something."
Mr. Kammler paused, considering Tommy's possibilities. Karen and Rob leaned forward slightly. Tommy, in his Ben and Jerry's T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, was trying to sit still in the chair. Mr. Kammler appraised him and his T-shirt before speaking.
"My favorite ice cream," Mr. Kammler offered, pointing to the T-shirt.
"Their factory is up where I worked in camp."
"What work did you do?"
"I was a counselor."
"You should put that on your applications, too. Along with the recreation center, it might mean something."
"He was a very good counselor," Rob said, eager for something to contribute.
The remark didn't seem to register with Mr. Kammler.
"So—this is the moment everyone gets to eventually. Now you must realize, this is just my opinion. You control your own applications." No one in his audience believed him. "We allow you seven applications. What we have to do is create a pattern that maximizes your chance of acceptance in a range of schools that makes sense for your level of candidacy."
New York School of Dog Grooming occurred to Tommy as a little comic remark to break the tension, but he knew it wouldn't go over too well here.
"Have you given thought to large school or small, region of the country, or what you might be interested in studying?"
"Small rather than large, I think. Anywhere, really. And liberal arts, more on the English side. My math and science scores are not the greatest."
"Fair enough." He kept looking through Tommy's material. "We advise an approach where you select a couple of reaches, two or three middles and a couple of safeties. I don't think I would advise early admission anywhere. They should take time with your application." He pondered, made some notes on a pad. "I would say Colby and Hamilton as your reaches, but I wouldn't hold out too much hope there. Lafayette, Gettysburg, and Marlowe as your middles, with SUNY Albany and Clark as your safeties. And I think you'd have a shot of getting in somewhere."
There it was, the years of his parents anticipating how he might fare in these sweepstakes, Rob the previous spring pushing Tommy to visit colleges he wanted him to see like Wesleyan, Brown, and Middlebury. Dad, it's a joke, I don't have a prayer of getting into those places. Just to see, to get a base line. Karen reprimanding Rob, you're setting up false expectations. The anxiety, the restless nights, the repetitive conversations that left everyone numb and, finally, the prognosis from Mr. Kammler. Tommy had "a shot at getting in somewhere."
"They're good, small liberal arts colleges, except for Clark and SUNY, and in the case of Clark it's called a university, but it's smallish. What do you think, Tommy?"
"Sounds good," Tommy responded, relieved to have any list. "All right then," Mr. Kammler said. "We've got a plan."
They stepped outside the office. The next group was waiting, Tommy's friend, Jill Fleming, and her divorced parents making an uncommon appearance together for this meeting. They looked apprehensively at the Burrows family.
"New York School of Dog Grooming," Tommy finally got to say. Jill laughed. The adults did not. Tommy then said, "He thinks someone will take me."
They adjourned to the parents' association lounge. Karen and Rob had lived for years with the knowledge Tommy was an average student and no amount of the subject-by-subject tutoring they tried periodically seemed to help. They anticipated that he wasn't going to get into a college with the prestige of their schools, the University of Pennsylvania and Barnard, which they attended after Stuyvesant High School and The Fieldston School respectively. They tried to find a comfort zone—he was a good boy, the way he worked with children in the Bronx and a good counselor at camp and no drug problems they knew of, and honest, too. Hardworking usually went with honest, but they weren't certain how hardworking he really was. Healthy, though, they were deeply grateful for that, the main thing considering the children in wheelchairs, the children who can't run because of their asthma, the children with life-threatening illnesses, you shouldn't have to go to those comparisons to feel comfortable about your son, to think of others who have such disabilities, but they did go there, they were lucky with Tommy, and if he would never get into a prestigious college, they had the fact that he was a good boy and honest and healthy to sustain them, only it did sting more than a little, to see the pattern they identified over these past years confirmed. Hamilton and Colby, his reaches, were schools Bantrey students attended, but the others, they never heard of anyone from the school going to any of them.
"It's a well-rounded list," Rob said. "But I think you can lose the dog grooming joke. If you keep saying it, it'll put you in a bad mind-set on this."
"You mean I'll think less of myself and I won't apply myself?"
"You know what Dad means. It's too self-deprecating."
"Okay. But the dog grooming is there as a backup."
"Tommy—" Karen reprimanded.
"All right. Dogs smell when they're wet anyway."
"We should take a look at these schools," Rob said, all business.
"Absolutely. I have no idea what they're like," Karen said.
"Let's get the brochures, the applications. So it was Hamilton and Colby ..."
"Those are the reaches, Dad, very reaches," Tommy said.
"Still, they're on the top of your list. Then there's Lafayette, Marlowe, Gettysburg." Rob was suppressing his own bias; he didn't know anything about these colleges. They had names he had only seen for football scores on the bottom of the television screen on ESPN. "And the safeties?"
"SUNY Albany and Clark."
"If he lets you apply to seven, it might be a different seven. These are just suggestions," Karen offered.
"Mom, Mr. Kammler doesn't suggest. These are the ones he wants me to apply to."
"How do you feel about the list, Tommy?" Karen asked.
"Hey, we know I never was going to Harvard."
Tommy went to his next class. Karen and Rob stood outside The Bantrey School, located in a five-story white brick building on 78th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. The student body numbered 1250 students from K to grade twelve. In its earliest years Bantrey attracted mainly the children of the Upper East Side, old money. Around the 1970s this gave way to new money, mainly Wall Street people and working professionals, as well as actors located in New York and the occasional music business star. The star parents were now increasingly from the business world, including one falling star, a CEO caught in what the Daily News characterized as "corporate hanky-panky." Karen and Rob were somewhere in the middle of the parent population in income and school involvement, Rob on the athletic committee, Karen on the annual auction committee. They originally selected Bantrey for Tommy thinking the emphasis on "the whole development of the child" was good for their rambunctious little boy. And looking ahead, Bantrey had the reputation for getting students into good colleges. About the time of ninth grade, when Tommy appeared to be firmly located in the middle, his parents talked about, but decided not to, transfer him. Essentially he seemed fairly well adjusted to Bantrey, merely in the middle.
"Did we make a mistake?" Rob asked Karen. "Maybe he would've been better off somewhere else."
"It's possible he is who he is," she said. "He's never going to be a great student and never could've been."
"I'll get on this tutoring thing. Whatever it costs."
"Three hundred fifty dollars a session with those people. Sessions run an hour and three quarters."
"How do you know this?" Rob asked.
"I looked into it. I wasn't going to bring it up until we had the meeting."
Excerpted from A Perfect Divorce by Avery Corman. Copyright © 2004 Avery Corman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted March 29, 2012
Although the first chapter was a bit of a struggle, the book eventually did capture my attention and interest. The ending seemed a little too pat and predictable, but the characters were likable and their problems believable. The author often fails to identify the antecedents and has an unusual literary quirk : he tell you the exact of height of every character. Interesting but odd!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 24, 2010
This is a book about Tommy, a lost boy, trying to get in and survive college and his divorced parents Karen and Rob. Karen and Rob divorced because of the stresses of their successfully careers and throughout the book run these inappropriate thoughts on one another when each is with their new love interests. The book follows mediocre Tommy trying to get into school, then surviving one semester, dropping out to work menial jobs and then find himself. This book is ridiculous in the attitude that Tommy's parents' divorce caused him to become lost and suggest throughout that had the parents stayed together, Tommy would have been much more accomplished. I am guessing the author was not the child of divorced parents or he would realize that it is much better to have divorced parents than parents who fight/dislike each other staying together for the sake of the kid. Dumb.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 23, 2005
Posted October 31, 2004
This book was so well done on so many levels and evoked a whole range many emotions. Meet New York parents Karen and Rob who do their best to work out a 'perfect' arrangement in the aftermath of their divorce. The story poignantly details the effects of the divorce on their son Tommy and the other people who move in and out of Karen and Rob's lives. There is a lot of humor as well. The author's descriptions of the upper-class Manhattan lifestyles provide quite a bit of comic relief. Very good read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 29, 2004
If you've read any of Avery Corman's books, you know of his strong ability to make you feel that you are right there with his characters feeling their every emotion. Well, Corman once again demonstrates this special skill in A Perfect Divorce, in which he masterfully tells a story of well-intentioned parents of a teenage son attempt to lessen the impact of their failed two-career marriage with an intelligent, successful divorce. It is a very special tale of life, love, child-rearing and divorce. At times it will make you smile with joy, feel like crying (if not actual cry) out of happiness and sadness, and, at times, break your heart due to the disappointment the divorced parents experience as well as the pain felt by the divorced child. Corman is an excellent writer and one you should not miss. All of his books are well worth reading -- the best of which are Kramer Vs. Kramer, The Old Neighborhood, 50, and Prized Possessions. Do yourself a real favor and get a copy of A Perfect Divorce. I'm confident you'll be very glad you did.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.