For years, 38-year-old Portia Nathan has avoided the past, hiding behind her busy (and sometimes punishing) career as a Princeton University admissions officer and her dependable domestic life.
Her reluctance to confront the truth is suddenly overwhelmed by the resurfacing of a life-altering decision, and Portia is faced with an extraordinary test. Just as thousands of the nation’s brightest students await her decision regarding their academic admission, so too must Portia decide whether to make her own ultimate admission.
Admission is at once a fascinating look at the complex college admissions process and an emotional examination of what happens when the secrets of the past return and shake a woman’s life to its core.
Perhaps my college admissions fixation dates all the way back to my own application-induced trauma of 1978-9. Perhaps I never quite got over that rejection letter from Yale. A few years ago, I asked the Dean of Admissions at Princeton (where my husband is a professor) if she would hire me as an outside reader, explaining that I was interested in admissions as the backdrop for a novel. Outside readers, at Princeton and elsewhere, are trained to read applications and provide evaluations of credentials, essays and recommendations. While I did not take part in activities that are the sole domain of admissions officers (such as school visits, contact with applicants and high school counselors, and – most significantly – decisions on admission), working as an outside reader provided me with a fascinating glimpse into the complex and difficult and careful way schools like Princeton assemble an incoming class from many thousands of qualified applicants.
It was as I read those hundreds of applications, over the two years I worked for Princeton’s Office of Admission, that the plot and characters of ADMISSION began to come to me, but it took an interview with Bob Clagett, Dean of Admissions at Middlebury College, to give me my first real insight into the character who would become Portia. Was there, I asked Dean Clagett, a personality type you tend to see in people who chose to work in college admissions? I’m not sure what I expected. Judgmental? Bossy? Sadistic? But whatever it was, his actual answer was utterly arresting. He said: “We’re all such do-gooders.”
So many things fascinate me about this process. There’s the fact that it is constantly changing, shifting to meet the shifting demands of a shifting society. There’s the fraught, problematic concept of fairness, and how institutions struggle with that. There’s the inescapable challenge of the fact that when you work as an admissions officer at a highly competitive college, virtually everyone you meet is angry at you. And there’s the intellectual hurdle of working in a field where so many of our cultural obsessions (immigration and assimilation, notions of “success”, tradition, diversity, even that supposed oxymoron “American class”) are jostling for attention.
Researching and writing ADMISSION allowed me to think about so many of the things I’m preoccupied with anyway that it was a particular pleasure for me. I never lost my sympathy for the kids who are fated to suffer this particularly gruesome American rite of passage, nor for their parents (who suffer alongside them, as they hardly need to be reminded!), nor for the mainly decent, hardworking and – yes! – quite often do-gooder men and women cursed with making these decisions. Aren’t we glad we don’t have to do their jobs?
Portia Nathan is a thirty-eight-year-old admissions officer at Princeton University, a place so discriminating that it can afford to turn down applicants who are “excellent in all of the ordinary ways” in favor of the utterly extraordinary—“Olympic athletes, authors of legitimately published books, Siemens prize winners, working film or Broadway actors, International Tchaikovsky Competition violinists.”
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Portia compares her job to “building a better fruit basket” and achieves career success by helping her institution pluck the most exotic specimens, but her personal life is permanently on hold because of a traumatic incident from her own college years that she has never come to terms with. Although the reader may unravel the mystery of Portia’s past before the plot does, the novel gleams with acute insights into what most consider a deeply mysterious process.
With acceptance rates at Ivy League schools now impossibly low, this timely novel written by a former "reader" of personal essays at Princeton has built-in appeal for anyone seeking insight about the ferocious competition.
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The story revolves around 38-year-old Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan, who's grappling with a long-buried secret from her past. More compelling than her personal drama, though, are the well-researched insider tidbits on everything from family legacies (they count more than you think) to baked-goods bribes (don't bother) to the kind of "complex, mellifluous" student essays that smack of cheating. Early decision? Recommended.
Gripping portrait of a woman in crisis from the extremely gifted Korelitz...
Over the past few months, high school seniors have been finding out whether they've been accepted or rejected by the colleges to which they'd applied. There's plenty of drama in their lives.
But how about the lives of the people who judged their applications?
In her latest novel, "Admission," Jean Hanff Korelitz tells the story of Portia Nathan, a 38-year-old admissions office at Princeton University. She's one of the people charged with luring talented, high-achieving students to apply to her school, and then helping to decide which carefully constructed applications win an acceptance and which are sent to the shredder.
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The book vividly portrays the atmosphere and details of Nathan's job as her personal story unfolds. And that's fascinating for those of us who've gotten good or bad news from colleges for which we yearned, or shepherded ambitious children through the gauntlet of the application process.
Sure, we know about the "full-throttle adolescent anxiety" Nathan encounters when she visits high schools, and the complaints about unfairness in college admissions that a high-voltage mother slaps her with at a party. It's not surprising that people greet Nathan with "panic-laced fascination" when they find out what she does.
But here, we listen to high school counselors lobbying for their applicants. We enter the college admissions office and watch Nathan evaluate applications. We sit in on the admissions committee as it votes. And we see Nathan try to sell her colleagues on a brilliant but unaccomplished boy she met at an experimental school in New Hampshire.
(In an interview, Korelitz told The Associated Press that her behind-the-scenes portrait was drawn from her experience working part-time at the Princeton admissions office, interviews with admissions deans at several schools, nonfiction books and "common sense.")
It's that New Hampshire boy, in fact, who unites Nathan's professional and personal life. She's dedicated to her job and cares deeply about the kids who apply, feeling a "little trill of excitement" every time she opens an applicant's folder for the first time. But her personal life is hollow at the core. Her life with her lover of 16 years, an English professor, is merely comfortable as the book begins. She has a strained relationship with her mother. She has a hard time remembering the last time she felt truly happy.
When Nathan meets her Mr. Right on a business trip, it looks like her life might take off. But she pushes him away. What's wrong with her? Eventually, we find out that she has buried a secret since her own college days, one she finds shameful. Meeting the New Hampshire kid brings it back to the surface. She thinks of a way to set things right ? at the risk of her career.
Korelitz tells the tale from Nathan's point of view, and unfortunately, she often lets Nathan's ruminations run on too long. That slows the story, and the reader sometimes feels trapped in the heroine's brain.
But "Admission" is still a good read. And if you have any interest in the merry-go-round of big-time college admissions, it's even better.
Parents of students aspiring to elite universities may want to wait to read Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel "Admission," about a Princeton admissions officer in crisis. Korelitz's depiction will reinforce their fear that getting into an Ivy League school takes far more than being an excellent student -- curing cancer might do it, so long as some other 17-year-old doesn't do it first.
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Yes, Portia Nathan affirms, when confronted by an angry mother, kids can get a good education at a lot of colleges. But her world is the Ivies -- she went to Dartmouth -- and she knows that entering it is increasingly difficult.
An old-fashioned novelist in the best sense, Korelitz takes a subject of consuming contemporary interest and uses it to frame a portrait of a wonderfully complex character confronting the choices she's made and the damage she's done, mostly to herself.
Portia seems the model of a successful professional as she embarks on a fall recruiting trip to New England. At Deerfield, a traditional Princeton feeder, she fields questions from a roomful of eager overachievers. At the alternative Quest School, whose skeptical students are not convinced they need "to participate in this national hysteria about college admissions," she makes the case that if they want to change the world, a rigorous education can help.
Such scenes reveal Portia's commitment to her work, her affection for different sorts of young people and her desire to help them on their way. A boy named Jeremiah -- a brilliant misfit in a working-class family, largely self-educated until he got to Quest because his public school didn't know what to make of him -- is just the sort of student she prides herself on guiding toward Princeton.
The first cracks in Portia's facade appear when Quest teacher John Halsey mentions that he too attended Dartmouth and knew her boyfriend Tom. Her reaction makes it clear that something went very wrong with Tom, and when she falls into bed with John, there's a lot simmering under the surface of their lovemaking.
Back home, the cracks widen as Portia's partner, Mark, prepares a dinner party. Why are these two live-in companions so cautious around each other? Why is Portia so unhappy to hear that her mother, Susannah, has called?
Why, after the party is over, is Mark so unfairly critical of Portia's response to the hostility of a new colleague of his in the English department? What is "the barbed thing she had done a very long time ago" that makes Portia so reluctant to deal with any of this?
Korelitz wrote two legal thrillers before turning to mainstream fiction with "The White Rose," a shrewd and subtle novel of manners. Here, she makes good use of her genre apprenticeship, administering a series of shocks that send Portia into a tailspin while planting clues to the long-buried trauma that has scarred her life.
Mark leaves, after confessing that the hostile English professor is expecting his child. Susannah announces that she's taken in a pregnant teenager, promising to adopt the baby but in fact hoping that after it's born the new mother will decide to keep it.
Long before Portia numbly scans the 1990 birth dates on this year's applications, attentive readers will have figured out that she got pregnant in college and ever since has been tortured by the decision she made. We have to wait until very near the story's end to learn what she did, but that's because the author wants us to know Portia better so we can understand her actions.
Sensitively excavating Portia's personal history, Korelitz stirs compassion for this caring, self-doubting woman. She populates the book with three-dimensional characters who spotlight the obstacles thrown in Portia's path and the helping hands she's been unable to grasp.
After she reconnects with John and Jeremiah when they visit Princeton, Portia is ready to face the primal source of shame and anguish that has driven her for years. She takes a rule-breaking step to atone for this "old, old transgression" and though the consequences are as severe as she expected, they're also liberating.
Portia doesn't get a happy ending, but she gets something that might be better: a future free from the weight of the past -- or at least as free as any- one can be in the complicated, challenging society Korelitz thoughtfully examines.
Well-written, well-plotted and extremely satisfying, "Admission" marks another step forward for a writer whose accomplishments grow more impressive with each book.
Who separates the exceptional kids from those who are merely ''excellent in all the ordinary ways'' in the brutally competitive world of the Ivy League? Portia Nathan, the protagonist of Jean Hanff Korelitz's compulsively readable new novel, is one of those gatekeepers, a 38-year-old Princeton admissions officer whose job it is to cull through them all — the fourth-generation legacy, the dreamy musical savant, the impoverished immigrant with a gift for microbiology — and grant access to the very few.
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At 449 pages, it's a doorstop-worthy tome. But unlike the painful process of waiting for that acceptance (or, God forbid, rejection) letter, Admission seldom drags. Korelitz, a former part-time application reader for Princeton, knows her territory: Those who pick up the novel to gain a glimpse into the rarefied world of high-end academia won't be disappointed. Nor will competitive parents and their college-bound offspring looking for an incidental do's-and-don'ts cheat sheet. (Homemade cookies and hysterical phone calls? Probably not going to tip the balance on underwhelming test scores.)
Each chapter begins with a neat device: short excerpts from (fictional, we presume) application essays that range from wrenching to utterly inane. But Portia is the book's true center. She's a sharp, thoroughly fallible woman whose concern for every kid who comes across her desk conveniently masks the shambles of her own life. Her struggle to confront her willfully blocked past, deal with the collapse of a long-term relationship, and become a whole person, not merely a midwife of teenage ambition, is what ultimately makes Admission so compelling. It's hardly flawless — Portia's deep, dark ''secret'' is actually pretty shallowly buried, and readers may find themselves frustrated at times by her emotional passivity — but as a character, she feels utterly real. And Admission is that rare thing in a novel: both juicy and literary, a genuinely smart read with a human, beating heart. A–