So I read Dahlia Adler’s Just Visiting and Alice Oseman’s Radio Silence back to back, and I found that to be an interesting experience in terms of their portrayals of applying to college/university and the families that the books showed. Minor spoilers to follow, but I tried to keep them vague.
Both of these books have major plotlines concerned with life after high school, college and university admissions, and finding the best path for yourself. In Just Visiting, Reagan and Vic planned to go to college together, but they found that what they wanted was actually quite different. In Radio Silence, most of the main characters felt major pressure to go to top-rated universities, but several in fact really didn’t want to be there.
Both stories ended up exploring “non-traditional” choices. Despite the two narrators initially deriding it, Just Visiting was supportive of community colleges. It affirmed gap years and specialized schools. Radio Silence showed paths not involving continued education after secondary school and options like art school.
There was a much stronger sense of pressure and burnout around school in Radio Silence. Just Visiting showed Reagan having to keep her grades up for scholarships and going to great lengths to get schoolwork done — staying up late after working a long shift at the diner, working by flashlight when her trailer lost electricity, staying with a friend all week to have computer access — but the obstacles and pressures were mainly due to her poverty, not outside expectations. (If anything, Reagan’s expectations of herself were highest; she really wanted out of the town she grew up in, and many people around her derided her dreams.) In Radio Silence, three of the key characters were at the top of their classes and had always gotten very good grades. They were expected by their schools, friends, and in one case, family, to go to a top university, to apply to Oxford or Cambridge and have a good chance at getting in, to spend a lot of time revising for exams or doing other schoolwork. It’s a pressure that’s just as real as that shown in Just Visiting, but it’s of a different nature.
Both books had students interested in art of some kind, but the level of portrayal of what that meant for after high school was different. In Radio Silence, some of the characters talked about art school, but we didn’t see anyone applying, just based on the timeline and story line of the book. We did get to see Vic working on her portfolio for art programs and/or schools in Just Visiting. In both books, though, the passion of the students for art did come through, and I think both portrayals are authentic.
I want to go back to the family point. I really appreciated seeing different kinds of families and interaction with families here. Like I said, Reagan’s family wasn’t supportive of her at all (and her mother even suggested that she should want to stay home and be supported by her husband). This was in great contrast to Vic’s family members, who actively helped her achieve her goals. In Radio Silence, one character’s family didn’t understand why he wanted to go to university and study science; they’d understand him better if he went into the family business. Another character’s mother was focused on academics as the sole measure of success. The narrator’s mother was much more chilled out about school and really cared about her daughter’s life. In both cases, we as readers see healthy and unhealthy family situations.
Both books also showed a mix of economic situations, and this affected attitudes towards college/university in some cases. In Radio Silence, Daniel’s family was not particularly well off. Frances and her mom seemed to do fine for money, but the 90 pound train ticket was very non-trivial. I was never sure about Aled’s family, but his mom seemed more upper class than the other parents in the book. And then in Just Visiting we had Reagan, who lived in a trailer park and used money from her work at the diner to pay some of the bills, and we had Vic, who pretty much never worried about expense.
I recommend both books*, and reading them back to back was pretty cool for thinking about these themes.
If you’re interested in other books that touch on questions of different post-secondary paths, I’d recommend Eliza and her Monsters by Francesca Zappia, This Song is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin, and Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann. For books with interesting family dynamics with respect to college, add Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone by Rachel Lynn Solomon, and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez to that list.
*If you’re aro-spec or ace-spec, know that I (demisexual and grayro) had very mixed feelings about the demisexual rep in Radio Silence and think that rep is at least a little problematic from an aro perspective.