A precocious and unhappy teen chases after a piece of note paper and ends up at the entrance exam for Brakebills College. Quentin makes it through and matriculates into an exclusive magical college he never knew existed. His time at college is my favorite part of the book--the descriptions of finger exercises and relentless memorization and meditation are excellently done. Grossman really gets the mindset of overachieving perfectionists. Eventually, Quentin and his friends graduate and live lives of selfish hedonism in New York. The college pays for everything, and their magical abilities make everything seem possible--to the extent that nothing seems that important. Just when they are really falling apart, they find a way into Fillory, the world's equivalent of Narnia. The group cautiously makes their way into a world they thought was fictional.
The plot and themes of this novel are absolutely great. This is one of the very rare mature looks at a magical school. I was particularly impressed by Grossman's nuanced take on how people respond to the fantasies of their childhood come to life. BUT. I hated Quentin. I hated him so, so much I could hardly get through the book. He is a privileged, entitled, selfish jackass, and following him around as he whines his way through adventures is excrutiating. He is Holden Caulfield, but smarter and even less empathic. He is every self-important, self-involved, overly-educated rich white boy I ever hated. If this book were about Alice, who was raised by two magicians so powerful that their very home is in a constant state of flux, or Eliot, who alternates between Oscar Wilde and Sebastian Flyte, it would be excellent. As it is, I was so frustrated with this novel that even though it contains some of the best writing about magic that I've ever read, I almost gave up on it.