There are plenty of books on the market about getting into the best colleges. These “how to” books let students and their nervous parents imagine that there is a formula to it all, a way to package an ordinary adolescence into the magic of Harvard or Yale or Princeton.
Admission is a novel—and a bit of a page-turner, in truth—that uses the admission process at an Ivy League school as its backdrop. It’s not wholly immune, however, to some kind of search for a formula. As entertaining as the novel is, its plot seems as calculated as the sycophantic snippets of college essays that begin each of its chapters.
Portia Nathan is a graduate of Dartmouth who, upon graduation, was hired by the school’s admission office. When the novel begins, she is ensconced in the same job at Princeton, having newly been given New England as her territory. Plainly, this will be a novel about “the admission process” but also a novel about “admission” as a process in several senses of the word.
Portia, naturally, has secrets that are bound to emerge during the 2007-2008 admission season. Her live-in relationship with the acting chair of the English department unravels in infidelity (not hers), while an old admirer from her Dartmouth days fills the void. John is also a teacher at an alternative school on Portia’s beat, where she meets a quirky auto-didact named Jeremiah. Despite terrible grades, no “community service”, and a completely empty activities resume, Jeremiah becomes Portia’s favorite candidate for Princeton admission. Why? As Portia’s life unravels into depression, she needs answers.
Korelitz is the author of several books—a couple of legal thrillers as well as some more conventional “literary” efforts. Admission was researched by Korelitz through two years spent as an “outside reader” in the admission office at Princeton, where her husband is indeed a professor. Like a genre novel that self-consciously sets itself in a particular scene or locale, Admission is steeped in the philosophy and minutia of college admission and goes to massive lengths to explain its world.
Some readers may be drawn to the book for precisely this reason, wanting to absorb the “inside story”. Alas, in fact, this is the most tedious part of Admission. Portia spends an astonishing amount of time explaining to other characters what the admission process is really about, and these passages of dialogue come off like they are the author’s unedited research notes. Being an admission officer at an Ivy League school, it seems, is a job that puts the world on the defensive, and Portia is forever trying to justify her job, its procedure and its methods, to sassy high school kids, stuffy faculty members, and pushy mothers of applicants. These lectures on topics such as diversity at elite colleges succeed mainly in making Portia seem insufferable and brittle.
This is partly intentional on Korelitz’s part. Portia is profoundly withdrawn—from her lover Mark, from her mother, and from her few friends. This book is plainly going to be about why this is the case. The pages turn quickly because all this explanation is sure to be coming, but it seems equally likely that the explanation is going feel All Too Easy. There is going to be something in her past we need to learn, and once we do it will explain it all. There is, and it does, and it’s satisfying, and it’s not.
Korelitz writes with great and near-continual momentum. She gets bogged down in too much of the admission talk, sure, but it’s also pretty fun to be placed dramatically inside Princeton Admission Committee meetings. It’s also easy to cheer on the novel when it neatly skewers the locutions of young folks (“But so often the newness of [the applicants], the flux of their emerging selves, would poke through the essays or the recommendations, stray references to how Jimmy had grown since his difficult freshman year or Jimmy’s own regrettable use of the word awesome.”).
I don’t know if the reader cares about Portia all that much, as she is unlikeable for very nearly ninety percent of the story. Yet I felt that I still wanted to solve the puzzle of her emptiness—like I want to finish a crossword or Sudoku.
Ultimately, I found it hard to escape the notion that Korelitz, living in a college town, had been unable to resist the conceit of writing novel called “Admission” that would both take place in an admission office and be about a character making a great “admission” about herself. The idea, it seems, was so irresistible that the author forced the story—overusing her source material too often and then writing herself into a corner that could only be escaped from by too-neat-by-half plotting.
Portia’s secret, which flings us into a long chapter set in her past that is the dullest thing in the book, is melodramatic and also—ultimately—obvious. It tries to humanize her so quickly that a reader can barely keep up with how her revelations change her. With so many loose ends tied up so easily, it’s hard to keep from feeling that Korelitz has cheated the process somehow.
Admission, for all its shortcuts, is a zippy read and a keen glimpse at the man (or woman) behind the college curtain. Just don’t expect a real wizard.