Whenever it comes time to review a book I love as much as I loved Admission, I find myself terribly anxious. On the one hand, I want to tell the world how wonderful this book was, how much I wanted to crawl inside and follow Portia Nathan around Princeton, peer over her shoulder at the hundreds of college applicant admission forms she perused in her role as an Admissions Officer, sit at a battered table in Small World and sip a latte while we commiserated over the horrible way her lover of 16 years had deceived her, walk beside her through the leaf-strewn avenues as she talks, perhaps finally sharing the painful secret which she has admitted to no one else.
On the other hand, I’m afraid I can’t possibly do the book justice.
Jean Hanff Korelitz has written a spectacular novel in my estimation, and it’s one that will likely fly under the radar, but one that deserves to be read and savored by everyone who craves strong characters confronting complex and interesting situations. Of course, I’m a sucker for stories about college life, and this is one of those. I’m also a sucker for tales of brilliant teenagers who find themselves floundering in the “normal” high school experience, and it’s also one of those. But most of all, I’m compelled by tales of strong, intelligent women working their way through devastating dilemma’s and emerging stronger, wiser, and on the course to a promising new future. Admission is most definitely one of those.
Portia Nathan, 38 years old, has immersed herself in the rigorous life of an Admissions Officer for an Ivy league school for the past 16 years. The admission process is fascinating in itself, and Korelitz knows whereof she writes, having recently spent two years as a part time reader for Princeton admissions. Portia’s fervor for the applicants is surprising and fierce, and she treats each of the hundreds of supplicants who come before her on paper (and some few in person) with dedication and honor.
Very quickly, however, the reader senses the unease in Portia, in the way she holds herself back from life outside the confines of her office and even from the home she shares with Mark, a Princeton English professor. There is something eating away at her, some secret pain that has affected her life in ways she’s not admitted to anyone, not even herself.
So yes, the book is all about the Admission Process…and much as the students come before her, putting their best face on the world, so does Portia go through life putting on a good front. Until one day, at a small, experimental school in upstate New Hampshire, Portia comes face to face with the aftermath of a life-altering decision she made years ago, and she must admit the ways it has shaped her life so far, and how it will force her to re-invent herself in the future.
She was suffused with shame, drenched with it, riddled with it like something metastasized. Her bones kept it erect and her muscles made it move and her skin contained it, and everything she had ever felt or thought or done since that morning seventeen years before…had been felt in shame, thought in shame, done in shame.
Now it felt as if the shame were leaking from every pore of her, leaking and leaking as the first day passed, and then the next, and then the next. The bed was soaked with it, and the blankets and duvets made a damp tent to huddle beneath. Her body claimed not to understand the logic of this. There was, it seemed to her, no end to the backlog of weeping.
And though it might be a bit of a spoiler, the book is also about another subject near and dear to my heart – motherhood – and the ways it can become perverted but never lost completely. Portia’s rather distant relationship with her own mother – a radical feminist from who conceived Portia with a stranger on a train, and spent her life fighting social causes -is also at the core of the story, and the way Portia has handled many of the circumstances in her own life.
Admission is one of those rare novels that engages the reader on multiple levels, and, even at 447 pages, left me wishing for more.
You’ll be very glad you did.