ADMISSION by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Book Quote:

“We don’t have formal preparation.  Admissions work is something people just find they’re good at.  Or they don’t.  Or, they may be good at it, but they discover it’s very difficult for them emotionally.  It does affect you.  You’re very aware of what’s out there, and the stress these kids are under.  And they’re very deserving.  You want to say yes to them all, but you can’t.  People either make their peace with that or they need to do something else.”


Book Review:

Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky (MAY 24, 2009)

Admission is a novel that examines the complex process of selecting incoming freshmen for Princeton University from a large pool of eager and often superbly qualified applicants. Jean Hanff Korelitz draws on her experience as an “outside reader” for Princeton to add verisimilitude to her story.  She also spoke with deans of admissions and college counselors to gain a broad perspective on what has become, for many, a harrowing and competitive race to the finish line.

The protagonist is thirty-eight year old Portia Nathan, who has been a reader in Princeton’s Office of Admission for the past decade. She is passionate about her work, identifying with the “kids” whose orange application folders contain a mini-portrait of their backgrounds, accomplishments, and ambitions. It is part of her job to visit feeder schools and deliver a sales pitch to encourage high school juniors and seniors to consider Princeton. Sometimes she manages to recruit a gem during her travels, such as “the Inuit girl from Sitka, Alaska, who’d won Princeton’s sole Rhodes scholarship last year.”

Unfortunately, Portia is in a rut. She has been living with an English professor for sixteen years, and they have little of substance to say to one another these days. She has few friends and little contact with her sixty-eight year old mother, Susannah, a gregarious do-gooder who spends much of her time volunteering for a host of worthy causes. Unexpectedly, during her visit to the Quest School (whose mission is “to open doors, not close them”) in rural New Hampshire, Portia meets a warm and compassionate teacher named John Halsey who remembers her from their days at Dartmouth, as well as Jeremiah Balakian, a seventeen-year-old autodidact who has terrible grades but is a zealous and voracious reader. These encounters will shake up Portia’s life in ways that she could never have foreseen.
Korelitz is a fluid writer who provides a minutely detailed view of the whole admissions ordeal–especially what it costs parents and their children in angst, expense, and emotional upheaval. One clever and original touch is the inclusion of an excerpt of a typical college application essay before each chapter. Some of these are cloying, others smack of desperation, and a few are poignant and even profound. The essays convey more about admissions than the author’s encyclopedic explanation of every aspect of this incredibly complicated rite of passage.

Although Portia is a likeable and engaging character with enough wit and charm to make us care about her, she cannot carry the book by herself. What eventually sinks Admission, besides its excessive length, are its one-dimensional secondary characters and its regrettable descent into soap opera. The author expects us to buy two incredible coincidences that induce Portia to take a hard look at the bad decisions she has made. As Portia clumsily deals with the fallout from her mistakes, Korelitz wraps things up disappointingly with a trite and predictable conclusion. The title, Admission, has a double meaning, referring not only to the college admission process, but also to the importance of admitting painful truths to oneself and our loved ones before it is too late to make things right. It is too bad that Korelitz relies on clichés and heavy-handed plot elements. These keep what could have been a sharp and timely work of contemporary fiction from realizing its full potential.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 175 readers
PUBLISHER: Grand Central Publishing; First Edition edition (April 13, 2009)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Jean Hanff Korelitz
EXTRAS: Excerpt and a New York Times blog review
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May 24, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, NE & New York

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