Once your books have become a cultural phenomenon, what do you do next? If you're Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the Gossip Girl franchise, the answer is – leave high school behind and graduate to college. Nor is that the only thing she's graduating to. Von Ziegesar's newest novel, Cum Laude, is being marketed not to a teen audience, but to adults.
So how does von Ziegesar fare away from "the scandalous lives of Manhattan's elite" (as Gossip Girl so memorably termed them)? The college novel is notoriously difficult to get right. Those that are good (The Secret History, Rules of Attraction, Lucky Jim) are very, very good, but those that are bad (Freshmen, The Big U, King's Parade) are horrid. Cum Laude, which centres on the misadventures of a quartet of freshmen at an arts college in Maine in the 1990s – good girl who hopes to turn wild, Shipley, her caustic working-class roommate, Eliza, artistic jock Tom and his amiably stoned roommate Nick – falls somewhere in the middle of these extremes.
Von Ziegesar has always had a sharp eye for people's foibles – her Gossip Girl novels cut far closer to the bone than the kitschy TV series – and Cum Laude's liberal college is beautifully drawn, from the outward-bound bonding night the students have to spend together to the Grateful Dead-style cover band who play at every event. And, for all that she is describing a particularly American experience, it was hard not to laugh when Tom discovers Ecstasy or to cringe in recognition as Shipley deludes herself into thinking that every romance will be conducted on an epic, memorable scale.
It's not perfect, the ending feels rushed and Eliza, in particular, remains under-drawn; but with two further novels in the series planned, it seems fair to say that von Ziegesar has as strong an eye for the foibles of university life as she did for the Upper East Side.
'Cum Laude' is published by Hyperion Books