What My Mother Gave Me by Elizabeth Benedict

Today at Great New Books, we have the pleasure of hosting guest contributor Elizabeth Benedict, editor of the anthology, WHAT MY MOTHER GAVE ME: 31 Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most.

Thanks to Elizabeth and her publisher, Algonquin Books, we have one copy to give away to one lucky commenter at the end of this post (details below). Thank you, Elizabeth, for joining us at Great New Books and sharing one of your favorite reads with us today!


Author, Elizabeth Benedict, on one of her recent favorite books:


Obsession du Jour: Early Decision by Lacy Crawford

There are certain books that capture and help define the obsessions of the moment: Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (women’s rights, women’s sexuality), Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (the greed of the go-go 1980s), and Don DeLillo’s White Noise (late 20th century malaise).

Enter Lacy Crawford’s just-out first novel, Early Decision, whose subtitle says it all: Based on a True Frenzy. The Frenzy is our 21st century mania for getting our children into college in an atmosphere so competitive that many senior years in high school resemble presidential campaigns. Years from now, anyone doing research on this decade will find all she needs to know in Crawford’s bright, engaging – and kind of sad and frightening – story. Early Decision by Lacy Crawford

It’s part exposé, based on Crawford’s 15 years as a college essay tutor for the rich, part autobiography, and very much a well-made novel that takes place over an intense fall season in the life of Princeton-educated essay coach Anne. She’s revered by helicopter mothers, respected by master-of-the-universe fathers, and works a lot of magic on pampered, hard-to-reach teens as they do draft after draft of their application essays.

Underneath Anne’s competent façade is a young woman who needs some coaching – and maybe some therapy – of her own. She’s casting around for a new career, true love, and a reason to have something more than popcorn and red wine for dinner every night. Her classmates from Princeton are doctors, lawyers, writers, and millionaires. The ironies are not lost on her: she’s helping her clients end up where she did – in a top college – but she hasn’t made all she might have of her own education, her own gifts.

In promoting the novel, Crawford laid bare some of the excesses of former employers, particularly in a juicy piece for the New York Post, “Tutor reveals ivy-admissions madness of rich penthouse parents”. It’s easy to see how good Crawford must have been at this. As her alter-ego Anne critiques her clients’ essays in the novel, she’s an astute reader with a great eye for the telling detail, the subtle reveal, the story beneath the story.

The novel has a special resonance for me. In a strange case of role reversals, Lacy Crawford and I switched places. I spent decades writing novels and teaching creative writing (we nearly overlapped when I taught at Princeton and she was a student there), and I’m now helping kids with their college app essays, and she’s embarked on a writer’s life.

In her path as a writer, Lacy Crawford embodies a lesson I tried to teach my students, who believed that getting an MFA after college was the way to become a writer. I urged them to do something – almost anything – besides that. See the world. Have life experience to draw on besides your childhood. (They were often annoyed with me, but several have gotten in touch years later to thank me for the advice.)

Although the surface of Crawford’s novel is busy with hapless rich kids and their high-strung, ambitious parents – all of whom are suffering Senior Derangement Syndrome – the heart of the novel beats with Crawford’s textured life experience, her adult wisdom, her compassion, and her solid gifts as a storyteller.

Elizabeth Benedict  (www.ElizabethBenedict.com) is the author of five novels, including the bestseller Almost (2001), as well as The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. She’s the editor of two anthologies, including the recent New York Times Bestseller What My Mother Gave Me: 31 Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. For information on application essays, please visit www.DontSweatTheEssay.com 
More about Elizabeth’s anthology, WHAT MY MOTHER GAVE ME: 31 Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most:

Women look at the relationships between mothers and daughters through a new lens: a daughter s story of a gift from her mother that has touched her to the bone and served as a model, a metaphor, or a touchstone in her own life.

The contributors of these thirty-one original pieces all written specifically for this book include Pulitzer Prize winners, perennial bestselling novelists, and well-known NPR commentators. Joyce Carol Oates writes about quilts her mother sewed that were a comfort when her husband died; Rita Dove remembers a box of nail polish that taught her to paint her nails in stripes and polka dots; Lisa See, daughter of writer Carolyn See, writes about the gift of writing; Cecilia Munoz remembers the wok her mother gave her and a lifetime of home-cooked family meals; Judith Hillman Paterson revisits the year of sobriety her mother bequeathed to her when Judith was nine years old, the year before her mother died of alcoholism.

Collectively, the pieces have a force that feels as elemental as the tides: outpourings of lightness and darkness; simple joy and devastating grief; mother love and daughter love; mother love and daughter rage. In these stirring words we find that every gift, no matter how modest, tells the story of a powerful bond.

To enter the drawing to win a copy of What My Mother Gave Me: 31 Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, leave a comment (any comment) below, from Wednesday, September 18 until Friday, September 20 at midnight Eastern time. Great New Books will email the winner individually and announce it in the comments on Saturday, September 21. (Entries for the Continental US only, please.) As always, thanks for helping us to spread the word and thank you for joining us!