Thursday (E)Book Talk: “Admission,” by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This is the first book I read on my Amazon Kindle e-book reader, and counts for the Read Your Own Books (RYOB) 2009 Challenge.

Admission by Jean Hanff KorelitzAdmission
Jean Hanff Korelitz

book data via LibraryThing:
Grand Central Publishing (2009), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 464 pages
ISBN: 0446540706 / 9780446540704

Kindle edition data via
File Size: 750 KB
ASIN: B0026772YM

First sentence
: “The flight from Newark to Hartford took no more than fifty-eight minutes, but she still managed to get her heart broken three times.”

Book description: 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.

Comments: Admission‘s title plays off its dual meaning – “admission” being both the act of letting something in and letting something out. After well over a decade as an Ivy League college-admissions officer (first at her alma mater, Dartmouth, and then at Princeton), both of those definitions converge in one academic year for Portia Nathan.

Portia’s professional life revolves around “travel season,” when she visits secondary schools to give presentations to prospective Princeton applicants and answer their questions; “reading season,” when the admissions staff is immersed in reviewing thousands of applicant files; and “decision season,” when officers discuss and determine the fate of every single applicant in committee. During this particular travel season, one of her visits is to a new experimental school in New Hampshire, where she encounters a former Dartmouth classmate on the faculty and one unusual student who makes a special impression on her; they stay on her mind throughout her other travels, distracting her from the strain in her relationship with her long-time partner, Mark, until he shocks her to attention by an admission of his own. The total immersion of reading season gives Portia an excuse to avoid thinking about her domestic life, while contemplating the files of applicants – including that one unusual student, who turns up for a campus visit along with that faculty member – pulls her in other directions. The approach of decision season finds her being drawn back to some of her own decisions -and non-admissions – in the past, and how they got her to where she is now.

The novel mixes the nuts and bolts of the college-admissions process with Portia’s story, and I thought author Jean Hanff Korelitz did this very well. Part of her research for the novel included a stint as a seasonal application reader in Princeton University’s real-life Admissions Office; while some of the details may apply more at highly selective colleges than to U of State, there’s a lot of interesting insight into what colleges look for from prospective students, and what they do with it. Each chapter opens with an excerpt from a college-application essay, and sketches of the applicants Portia is getting to know through the files she’s reading are sprinkled throughout the novel. It’s not always clear what they have to do with the main plot, but I found them engaging rather than distracting.

There are a few threads to the story that are a bit more distracting – for me, the biggest one was the sideline concerning Portia’s mother Susannah. It’s not irrelevant, and I understand why it’s there, but it felt bigger than necessary to me. On the whole, though, this struck me as one of those books where the reader has to be patient and trust the writer; most of the elements that seem random at first really do have a place in the context of revealing Portia’s character.

I have a passing familiarity with Portia’s academic surroundings (I was a faculty wife in my former life with my former husband), and fiction in that setting frequently appeals to me. However, despite that, I saw this as a “domestic” novel; the suspense and drama in the story are of the everyday, character-driven variety, and much of the plot wasn’t hard for me to anticipate. I like that too, though, so it wasn’t a drawback. But I think one’s reaction to the novel depends on how one feels about Portia, ultimately. I liked and related to her, and felt that her personal growth over the year spanned by the story was believable.

I ‘m not sure that I’ve found a new addition to my “favorite authors” list, but I do think that Admission will turn out to be one of my favorite works of fiction this year, although I feel like I’m having trouble articulating exactly why it struck such a chord with me. I knew I wanted to read Admission as soon as I started seeing reviews of it last spring, and hearing Jean Hanff Korelitz speak on a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books just reinforced that. It was on my “waiting for the paperback” list until it became one of the first books I bought to read on my new Kindle, and I’m glad I’m not waiting to read it anymore. (The review of the Kindle experience itself will get a post of its own.)

Rating: 4/5

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  1. Kathy (Bermudaonion) – I seem to recall some reviewers not taking to Portia all that much at first, but despite that, most people seem to have liked this one.

    Short review of the Kindle: LOVE it! I'll write more about it later, though :-).

    Amy Reads – Thanks. You DO read good books :-D!