Admission – Jean Hanff Korelitz

(Reviewed by J.D. Jung)

I don’t know anything about the upcoming release of the film, Admission, starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, but I fondly remember reviewing the book right before is was released in 2009.

It was college decision time, and students constantly checked their emails to discover which schools found them worthy of admission. Since we were right in the midst of this, I just had to read the novel, Admission, to get a grasp on the complex method of Ivy League selection.

Author Jean Hanff Korelitz, a Dartmouth graduate, was once a part-time reader for Princeton’s admissions office. Her book is well researched, as she interviewed many of those involved in the process—from Princeton admissions officers to the Assistant Dean of Admissions. I found the process interesting, but it was the underlying story that kept me mesmerized.

Portia Nathan, a 38-year-old Princeton admissions officer (and Dartmouth graduate), is assigned to recruit students from the Northeast. In addition to the usual public schools, she visits prep schools, where a student’s foremost purpose in life is to attend the college that his father and grandfather attended. Therefore, the schools’ administration (as well as the students) accommodates Portia in any way possible.

This all changes on her first visit to Quest, an alternative school nestled in New Hampshire farmland. The principal apparently forgets about their appointment and is nowhere to be found, so a teacher, John Halsey, arranges an assembly with the eleventh- and twelfth-graders. Most of the students display mere apathy, questioning the need for college at all. Others are antagonistic, attacking the elitism of the Ivy League. Though Portia feels uneasy with these students, she becomes obsessed with self-taught Jeremiah, who failed public school but aced AP tests without even taking the classes. It becomes her mission to get him to apply to Princeton.

However, John has another mission: Portia. Though she doesn’t remember him, he reminds her that he was the best friend of her college boyfriend. This triggers unpleasant memories, most of which we learn about later. She and John engage in an overnight affair, and she guiltily returns to Princeton and to her long-time, live-in boyfriend, Mark. Portia feels comfortable in her day-to-day existence, even with the unspoken competition among her fellow admission officers. However, that’s about to change.

Admission is an enticing novel, examining a woman’s life and emotional being. In reading it, you’ll learn about the Ivy League admissions process, but the facts are embedded in a well thought-out story.

Readers won’t question why Portia reacts to certain events the way she does. For the most part, her responses seem fairly reasonable. However, Korelitz slowly reveals how her decisions are shaped by her past. What’s captivating is that she doesn’t bombard the reader with this all at once. She strategically reveals prior incidences at the time she deems necessary. As readers finally get to know Portia, an unbelievable ending becomes realistic, though not expected.

Korelitz also gives as much thought to the complex supporting characters as she does to Portia. Readers are able to discern their moral fiber—from Portia’s boss and her friends to Mark and her free-spirited (ex-hippie) mother.

If you enjoy character studies and a well-structured plot, you’ll find Admission engrossing. Whether it will make a good comedy…hmm, your guess is as good as mine.

(Original review published on www.nightsandweekends.com)

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