It's pretty easy to poke fun at Harvard and the overachievers and privileged who make it down its narrow admission funnel to walk through the Johnston Gate. Teddy Wayne--New Yorker contributor and Whiting Award-winning author of the novels Kapitoil and The Love Song of Johnny Valentine--has his way with the Cambridge, Mass., educational icon in Loner, but with enough respect for the institution and empathy for his unsettling characters to temper his sharp tongue and skewers.

Narrated by first-year student David Federman, Loner is a love letter to Veronica Morgan Wells, who catches his eye at the first get-to-know-you dorm party and becomes his increasingly tumultuous obsession. More than a loner, David's a quiet, awkward New Jersey suburbanite who nailed his SATs and surprised his classmates with his Harvard acceptance--as he describes himself, "an inveterate mumbler in the final, shaky throes of puberty." Veronica is an Upper East Side Manhattan princess with a posh pedigree, alluring sway, cosmopolitan savvy and plenty of manipulative smarts. She's a far cry from his lunch table pals with their only-at-Harvard Jacques Derrida jokes and bong-hitting grip-and-grope parties. Still, David imagines her to be his Beatrice, his Juliet, his Helen of Troy--even as his fixation propels him over the edge. Wayne pins these young strivers to the wall but is also sensitive to their insecurities and ambitions. He captures the linguistic swagger of Harvard's progeny and strips away their elite veneer to reveal confused young people finding their ways and looking for love. Loner is comic and chilling campus coming-of-age at its best. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
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