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Novel explores gap year

"AN OFF YEAR," by Claire Zulkey, Dutton Children's Books, 213 pages, $16.99 (ages 14 and up)

It's that time of year again.

School is back in session, and another new crop of freshmen is entering college.

But not all of those freshmen are straight out of high school. Some of them are coming to higher learning after so-called gap years — taking a year off between high school and college.

"An Off Year," by Claire Zulkey, is a fictional account that explores one such student's experiences during her year off from school.

Cecily has always followed the rules. She's taken the right classes, applied to the right colleges and has basically done everything that's been expected of her. Everything changes when she goes to college, though.

Cecily gets as far as the door to her dorm room before deciding that she's not supposed to be there. She doesn't know why, but it's just not right. So she turns around and goes home.

Going home, however, is the only thing Cecily has planned. She could travel or volunteer, but nothing really jumps out at her.

Cecily would rather just sit around and do nothing. But doing nothing comes at a price. As Cecily sees her high-school friends enjoying and learning from their college experiences, she can't help but feel left behind. Self-doubt sets in, and Cecily begins to wonder where she belongs and what she wants to do with her life.

"An Off Year" is a mixed bag. Zulkey's writing is accessible, but Cecily quickly becomes annoying. Her laziness and self-indulgence makes the reader wonder if she has any redeeming qualities.

And while Cecily's experience with a gap year is probably not that uncommon, "An Off Year" tends to make one look at the negatives instead of the positives that can come with a year away from school.

That's not to say "An Off Year" is all bad. Zulkey is a talented writer who easily connects to her audience, making the reader want to stick through even the most frustrating points.

The publisher puts the suggested age of readers at 14 and up for "An Off Year," but due to some occasional use of strong language and sexual content, parents may want to read this one before their kids.

e-mail: jharrison@desnews.com