When I was 11, I saw a photo of the Radcliffe campus in fall, with a beautiful long-haired blonde in a plaid wool skirt sitting on a flight of leaf-covered steps in front of a red brick building. (Fran Schumer saw a similar picture.) A beautiful long-haired blonde is what I hoped to be someday, and I immediately started a savings account in a toy safe labeled “Effilcdar Dnuf” (the words were in code to fool my mother or anyone else who might be snooping around my room). Several weeks later, I blew the whole cache at the swimming pool. Apparently I made a wise decision.

Most Likely to Succeed is a “good read.” Fran Schumer is intelligent, insightful, and knows how to laugh at herself and to recognize the folly of all youth. She has a fine way with words and a witty turn of phrase as she takes us through Radcliffe/Harvard 1970-74 (just one year’s difference from when I would have been there, had I persevered). We come to know—intimately—Tess, Eleanor, Paige, Daisy, Felicity, and the author, and to watch schools of men swim naked through the co-ed dorms. (“‘I’m surprised grown-ups let us behave like that,’ a friend commented in later years.”) The girls are all likable, and wacky as can be: prodigies turned loose in Bedlam (Schumer was a freshman at age 16). In the second part of the book, she brings us up to 1984 in the lives of most of these women; one of them killed herself.

Schumer makes me remember what I’d rather forget; the way I felt at the small Midwestern state university I attended but was too immature to analyze. She has captured the administration’s quick and incomprehensible willingness to help students trash all norms and accepted values, the children aged 16 to 22 trying without success to get some limits imposed from above, the drinking, the class-skipping, the lethargy, the self-involvement. And the left-winged. Bomb-fearing despair, with no one (except our parents, whom we were there to escape) to suggest that a little hard work, a little less self-analysis, might just do the trick. I came to like the young women in this book, and was glad to be reassured that most of them grew up and learned to be happy.

“Six Women From Harvard and What Became of Them”: A genuine slice of life, an interesting piece of research, no? No. After I’d finished the book, I read the credits and found this: “The individuals depicted on the following pages are composite figures, based on my observation of many friends and acquaintances, in college and elsewhere, across a number of years. . . . My aim is not to offer a journalistic account of the period, but to tell a series of stories whose heart and soul are true.” Well, the book’s heart and soul may be true, but its guts are phony, and I’m steamed. I’d assumed the names were changed, but now I don’t know what to believe. Most Likely to Succeed is fiction, with a blatantly false subtitle stuck on it. As an account of a real time, a real campus, and real people, it would have been fairly effective journalism. As fiction—and coy, dishonest fiction, at that—it fails because it has no point. Anyone can lump together a bunch of real traits and call the result a “composite”; with a composite and a quarter, you can make a phone call.

Schumer has reported for various newspapers, been an editor at the Boston Globe, published fiction in all the right places, won a Goodman Loan Award for fiction, and coauthored Mary Cunningham’s best-seller, Powerplay. She’s a gifted writer, but the line between fact and fiction is not nearly so fine as she pretends here.


[Most Likely to Succeed: Six Women From Harvard and What Became of Them, by Fran Schumer; New York: Random House; $17.95]