Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with a copy of Alexander Tilney’s novel, The Expectations, in exchange for an honest review.
Fourteen-year-old Ben Weeks is a new student at St. James, an exclusive boarding school that has been attended by generations of men in his family. He is ecstatic to continue the family tradition, especially entering the school on the heels of his recently graduated and very popular older brother. Ben is ready to take his rightful place at St. James and fully anticipates that he continue the family legacy.
Ben’s roommate is Ahmed Al-Khaled, the son of a very wealthy Emirati sheik. Ahmed is wealthier than any of the other kids at St. James, but immediately, he is an outsider. Ahmed doesn’t act or dress like the other students, but more than that, he is legitimately self-confident, a rarity among teenagers. Ben is conflicted. He wants to help Ahmed fit-in with American culture, but he is doing it for his own benefit, as he doesn’t want to be looped with the “weird kid.” He also witnesses other students harassing Ahmed and Ben is conflicted as to whether or not he should intercede.
Ben doesn’t lack empathy, but his drive to be accepted overrides almost everything. The importance of being accept was a fundamental lesson from his upbringing and a core value that is reinforced at St. James through hazing.
The biggest issues that Ben faces are a direct result of his upbringing. He comes from an upper-class family that places a high value on money, social class, and tradition. This brings immense pressure and a sense of responsibility to uphold the family name, but a conflict arises when it is revealed that the Weeks’ family has lost their wealth.
Shortly into his first semester at St. James, Ben learns that his family is in a dire financial crisis and his father is involved in a tentative business deal. His father’s desperate business deal involves land for strip malls. Ben is mortified that his father would be in a deal with such a scummy, lowly enterprise as strip malls. This is the heart of the problem: Ben has been raised to be snobby. His parents are desperate to keep up their image of wealth, including hiding their problems, as much as possible, from their son. When Ben learns that there is trouble, his first instinct is to hide it from his fellow students. He doesn’t want to be perceived as different from them and must keep up the image of his family. The idea that he might need to go on financial aid is incredibly devastating and he is desperate to figure out an alternative. When a solution to his problem presents itself, he jumps on it, even though it involves a secret with Ahmed.
The Expectations is an apt title, as the novel deals with a variety of expectations: The expectation that Ahmed will learn to fit in at St. James. The expectation that Ben’s family will seamlessly maintain their wealth and status. The expectation that Ben’s life will continue on the trajectory that Is expected for men of his station.
On a smaller level, Ben is learning to handle these expectations vs the reality of being a teenager. He is a talented squash player and he fully expects to be a top athlete at St. James. His father has even donated money towards a fancy new squash court. The news of their financial situation derails Ben, as he cannot play on this new court knowing that they are no longer rich. Quitting squash is a way that he can directly go against the expectations of his father.
Tilney does a great job at writing teenage anxiety. The Expectations isn’t a story with dramatic plot twists, it is far more subtle and affecting. It is easy to remember being a teenager and struggling to fit in, trying to combine the expectations of your parents with those of your peers. I didn’t come from a wealthy family and I can appreciate that Ben’s expectations were different from my own, yet I feel that any reader will be able to relate to Ben’s conflicts, which include things like stressing over having the right clothes and talking to a girl that he is crushing on.
Ahmed, with his lack of awareness, is a refreshing contrast to Ben. It’s not that Ahmed doesn’t care about fitting in, as he does want to mesh with American society, but he also does not fear being himself. Although extremely wealthy, he doesn’t carry with him the same social status hang-ups that Ben and many of the other student’s carry.
Ahmed’s family has different expectations. The whole reason that Ahmed is studying at St. James is because of an old family friend, who helped Ahmed’s family grow their wealth and status. This friend was an American who studied at St. James and who told them that the private school fundamentally altered his life. Ahmed’s father is hoping that the same will happen for his son and there is a strong expectation that Ahmed will soak in this magic from his St. James experience.
At its core, The Expectations is about two teenagers from different worlds, who are both trying to navigate adolescence, but from under the weight of their parent’s enormous expectations. The pacing is a little slow and it took me over a week to read The Expectations, however the beauty in the book is it has so many layers. It’s a great novel for book groups and classroom discussions. Tilney has crafted a strong social commentary, with memorable and relatable characters.