Simon & Schuster, 2016, 203 pages
David Federman has never felt appreciated. An academically gifted yet painfully forgettable member of his New Jersey high school class, the withdrawn, mild-mannered freshman arrives at Harvard fully expecting to be embraced by a new tribe of high-achieving peers. But, initially, his social prospects seem unlikely to change, sentencing him to a lifetime of anonymity. Then he meets Veronica Morgan Wells. Struck by her beauty, wit, and sophisticated Manhattan upbringing, David falls feverishly in love. Determined to win her attention and an invite into her glamorous world, he begins compromising his moral standards for this one, great shot at happiness. But both Veronica and David, it turns out, are not exactly as they seem.
Loner is like one of those sitcom series where the likable nerdy loser spends entire episodes trying to impress the hot girl who is so far out of his league that the audience can only squirm in their seats in second-hand embarrassment. Except the nerdy loser isn't so likable, and by the end of the book you're cringing not just at the humiliation experienced by the protagonist, but at his complete, shameless lack of self-awareness as he goes from cringy to creepy to totally psycho.
David Federman is a smart but dull Jewish boy from New Jersey. Having been accepted into Harvard, his first problem is that he doesn't realize he's out of his league in more ways than one. He's used to being the smartest guy in the room, but that's back when he was a big fish in a small pond. At Harvard, everyone was at the top of their class, but David never really figures out that he's no longer smarter than everyone else.
He immediately falls into exactly the kind of crowd he hung out with in high school - a nerdy roommate with nerdy friends, who introduces him to Sarah, a nice Jewish girl who takes an obvious interest in him right away.
But David, who comes from a loving, dull, middle class family in the burbs, is determined to reinvent himself at Harvard. When he meets Sarah's roommate, Veronica Morgan Wells, a gorgeous socialite from a wealthy Upper West Side family, he is instantly smitten with her. Not just smitten, but obsessed. His life soon revolves around impressing Veronica, insinuating himself into her life, winning her.
Loner is full of painful episodes. Painful because you really want to feel sorry for David - the poor guy is just a clueless dork infatuated with a girl who's out of his league, and he has a romcom playing in his head where she eventually sees him for the awesome, charming Nice Guy he truly is, and falls for him instead of the rich handsome jocks she's dating.
As much as you might like to feel sorry for David, though, he's really not such a nice guy. In fact, he starts out as a self-justifying little shit and he just gets worse. He begins dating Sarah just to get closer to Veronica. He plans their dates, and even their (painfully earnest and awkward) sexual encounters around Veronica, with Sarah being merely a tool with which to impress Veronica with his virility and desirability.
He thinks he's "in" when Veronica needs help with a homework assignment. David is soon writing papers for her. Veronica brings him to a Final Club party where David has his first hit of cocaine and gets to hang out with Veronica's rich friends.
One could almost feel sorry for David, the poor schmuck, lost in the pursuit of the hot, unattainable girl who is clearly manipulating him, except he's such a creep. Even as he progresses to stalking Veronica to Manhattan, you hope that he eventually snaps out of it and realizes what an idiot he's being, but the climax, in which Veronica and David both unmask themselves, is about as disastrous as you'd expect.
This was a surprisingly good book, with believable characterization and a story that zooms along comically and tragically to its finale. It's also a wry look at modern college life, with David being alternately browbeaten with Social Justice platitudes by his girlfriend Sarah and turning into exactly the sort of awful caricature that SJWs rail about.
My complete list of book reviews.