It seems like almost everyone has read this novel at this point. The reviews I've read have tended to be more positive than negative, though most agreed on the fact that Quentin, the main character, was not very likeable or sympathetic. As a result, I felt like I was rather prepared for what was coming, and knew ahead of time not to be too frustrated if I disliked Quentin. Honestly, the first part of the novel, I didn't even think he was that bad. He was a bit snobby towards his parents because he thought they couldn't relate to him, but I get the feeling there's lot of college students that feel that way about their parents and going home for break, magical or not. It wasn't until after graduation that he really started to grate on me.
Quentin has always been one of the gifted kids, working hard to get the grades and to get into the advanced classes so he will be able to get into the right college. At the beginning of the novel, however, Quentin suddenly has an unexpected opportunity to take the entrance exam into Brakebills, a magical college. He passes the exams and is accepted as one of the 20 first years to make up his class at Brakebills, a five year school. Almost half of the novel chronicles his time at Brakebills, his developing relationships with other students including Alice and Penny, and later the Physicals (basically, the kids are all grouped together after their second year based on their discipline or major). Alice and Quentin both skip a grade, and as a result aren't quite as involved with the rest of their year group, focusing much more on the other Physicals. I didn't have any issues with this part of the novel, but at some point, I realized it was taking me much longer to get through than I would have expected, and this may be because there wasn't anything specific going on. The students go to class, the reader is introduced to the concepts of magic in this world and how much work it is, and then they graduate. It was at this point, that the novel went from a slow read to an unpleasant experience for me. After graduating, the alumni have to return to the real world and figure out their lives and what they want to do - there isn't a magical world for them to inhabit, so while there are positions that would involve them working for the magical community, for the most part, if they want to do something with their lives, it involves working in the real world, and maybe using magic to guide certain decisions and policies.
Alice, who was my favorite character, decided to remain in New York with the other Physicals and pursue her relationship with Quentin, but she is the only one who still takes an interest in learning, and finding some type of meaning in her life and actions, a fear she has due to her parents. Quentin and the others, on the other hand, waste their time with drinking, drugs and parties until Quentin and Alice's relationship is incredibly frayed. At this point, Penny, a student from Quentin and Alice's original year group, shows up and announces that he has found a way to get to Fillory, a magical world all of them are familiar with due to their childhood love of the novels set in Fillory. Fillory is of course an allusion to Narnia, saving Grossman the time of creating a new world from scratch since he can rely on his readers to fill in the blanks. Yet even as the characters plan their trip to this magical land, I wanted to shake all of them. Only Eliot really seems to get it, while the rest speak of becoming kings and queens, of riches they could gain, and discuss the possibilty of bringing guns into a land that doesn't have them. When they are finally in Fillory, I quite enjoyed one local character's comment when they start getting unhappy with the outcome there, which was basically, "we didn't want invite you, we didn't want you to turn our home into your little fantasy land."
Basically, as a story, the novel wasn't as engaging as I'd hoped, partially because the characters' inability to figure out their lives really irritated me. There's a reason I haven't read On the Road. However, some of the points within the novel aren't bad, and Grossman basically portrays Quentin as an unhappy character that relies on circumstances to make him happy rather than to find something on his own. He also has a hard time taking responsibility for his actions, and has a few somewhat sexist or misogynist moments. Overall, I didn't dislike it, I just found some of the characters frustrating (loved Alice, though), and wish it had sucked me in more than it did. It was basically the definition of an okay book - it wasn't good, it wasn't bad, there was definitely some potential and good parts but not quite enough.