Friday, January 27, 2012

Admission as a double entendre

It's been way too long since I posted. You see, we got this fancy new website at The Mercury and at first it didn't support Blogger, the program I've been instructed to use while blogging for the paper. So blah, blah, blah and three weeks later, here I am finally writing a post that I hope will successfully be posted on my blog/to the website.

It actually took me the last three weeks to finish my latest book, so you see how it all worked out perfectly.

Over the holidays, my sister Jennifer and I exchanged the books that we'd just finished reading. I gave her the stellar, romantic, nostalgic "Rules of Civility" - the debut novel by Amor Towles, which I loved and burned through in just a few days. She gave me "Admission" by Jean Hanff Korelitz (Grand Central Publishing, 2009, 449 pp., $14.99 paperback), praising the author's use of a clever device: Using excerpts from seemingly real college admissions essays at the start of each chapter.

The novel follows Princeton University admissions officer Portia Nathan, 38, through a few months (the time of year during which she reads hundreds of admissions essays and makes recommendations for students to be admitted - or not - to the famed Ivy League institution). While making her rounds of several New England private schools, rather prissily making pro-Princeton speeches and ducking overambitious students, Portia runs smack dab into her past.

We are treated to flashbacks of Portia's fatherless childhood, growing up the only child of a feminist in New Hampshire; of her college days at Dartmouth, which were dominated by a boundless love for a boy who treated her like the flavor of the moment; and of her early career, as an admissions officer for her alma mater, which she kind of fell into but ended up having an affinity for.

It's the Portia of the past that held my small interest in this novel, as the Portia of the present seems to be devoid of any interesting detail (in contrast to the people who surround her, who seem to be more fully developed characters: Her activist 68-year-old mother Susannah who chops her own wood and thinks nothing of helping a friend raise an infant "at her age"; her caring friend Rachel who tells Portia quite directly that she looks awful and needs help when she does and shows up at Portia's house when she hasn't heard from her for days; and her cowardly ex-boyfriend of 13 years who gets someone else pregnant and moves out overnight).

The "Admission" in the title I think refers more to an admission that Portia must make to herself, not an entrance to a prestigious university.  USA Today reviewer Bob Minzesheimer has another theory, "The title, which has a double meaning, is purposely singular, not plural, as in Princeton's Office of Admission."

While being confronted with her past, details of which we learn about in dribs and drabs, Portia has a relationship crisis which quickly turns into a career crisis which evolves into a very personal upheaval. I'm not going to reveal what the catalyst for her ultimate breakdown is, but let's just say the reader will see it coming.

Not to worry, though, the novel wraps up with the tidiest of endings. A little too tidy.

I think a former (like my sister, who once worked in admissions for an arts school) or current admissions officer or college faculty member might enjoy this novel, with its insider information on the college admissions process, and the clever use of admissions essays at each chapter's start. After I finished the novel, my sister admitted she didn't like it at all - in fact, she most enjoyed those clever essay excerpts!

There are hints to the other side of the admissions process: Applicants/parents sending tons of baked goods along with their college applications, as well as myriad phone calls, letters and emails pleading their cases, stalking admissions officers, pummeling them with questions about how to get in and accusations when their kids doesn't. There are the legacies - students whose parents or grandparents attended a university - who demand their kin get in on principal. There are some light moments, some revelations to this novel.

And they are real revelations: The author spent two years as an outside reader of applications at Princeton as research for her novel. Very cool. And perhaps not that difficult to arrange, as she is married to a Princeton professor.

Click here to read the first chapter of "Admission," compliments of (It was printed in the July 2009 issue of Oprah magazine).

But for me, it was too long, kind of arduous, not a story I loved but one I endured. I'm off to find something that captures my attention and my heart, wills me to stay up just another 20 minutes or hour or two, and leaves me wanting in the end. This book was not it.

About the author:

Jean Hanff Korelitz was raised in New York City and graduated from Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge. She is the author of novels A Jury of Her Peers (1996), The Sabbathday River (1999), The White Rose (2005), and Admission (2009), as well as a children’s novel, Interference Powder (2003) and a book of poems, The Properties of Breath (1988). Admission is reportedly being made into a film starring Tina Fey (Read more about that on this January 2011 Word& story ... Note: I will be going to see this film if Fey is in it).  Korelitz resides in New Jersey with her husband, Princeton professor Paul Muldoon, and their children. In 2006 and 2007 she worked for Princeton's Office of Admission as an outside reader.

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