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January 2, 2012

Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, is a novel that I thought would be about what it’s like to be an admissions officer for an ivy league college. Freshhell sent it to me, because she thought I might like to see the other side of the ivory tower and because we’ve been through the admissions process with one kid (although helping her apply to one college and seeing her get in doesn’t exactly mean we’ve been there and done all that).

The novel turns out to be the story of a woman named Portia who was raised to be a strong, independent woman but who got pregnant in college and gave the baby away, which has colored her entire life but she won’t admit it even to herself. For someone who works in the ivy leagues, she strikes me as not quite bright—and yet I do know academics who have successfully pushed emotional issues to the back of their minds for decades on end, without even the eventual breakdown Portia witnesses in one of her colleagues (from the English department, natch, because those people are passionate and unbalanced).

I love the portraits of the students who are visiting colleges and trying to decide where they’ll fit in, and the parents who support and push them. One of the students sounds–quite eerily–exactly like me: “…there’s nothing wrong with my reading. Except they couldn’t stop me doing it. If I was in the middle of something good, I didn’t want to go to class. Or if I was in class, I wanted to talk about whatever I was thinking about then, not what the test was going to be about.”

Portia is an articulate spokeswoman for the value of higher education, although she does have an inflated sense of prestige based on the college she attended (Dartmouth) and the one she represents (Princeton). She can’t hear someone use metaphors from Dante and Kierkegaard without making a big deal of it, saying “now that’s impressive.” And although she asks some important questions about the admissions process, she doesn’t pursue the right answers. She mentions colleges with
“’parent bouncers’ for orientation weekend, in an effort to get them off campus as soon as possible. She had heard from numerous professors about parents calling to discuss their children’s grades….And she had herself, on occasions too numerous to count, been forced to overhear the student walking beside her across campus whip out his or her phone to call Mom with the results of the Spanish quiz or statistics midterm.”
All of this is lumped into the same category—parents who are too involved in their child’s life—and the reasons for it are left as questions. (The best question is whether it is because of “some tragically outsourced pride that began with a MY CHILD IS AN HONORS STUDENT IN KINDERGARTEN bumper sticker, swelled with every SAT percentile or coach’s letter, and ended with a Princeton decal in the rear window”). So instead of having much to say about college admissions, the novel devolves into a kind of soap opera plot focusing on the way the character of Portia is driven.

It gets snotty, in fact, with stories like this one:

“Did I ever tell you,” said Rachel, “about this couple I met up at the dog park in Rocky Hill? Both total vegans. They had a dog they raised from a puppy, and the dog was vegan, too. The couple had fed it on, I don’t know, soy milk and tofu or something. Or rice. And they were always talking about nature and nurture, and how they went to a holistic pet healer instead of the vet, because they didn’t believe in vaccinations for dogs. They were, like worse than any parent I ever had to deal with at either of my kids’ schools, which is saying something, I can tell you. So one day last spring, we were all up at the dog park. I wasn’t standing with them, but I saw this. There was a kid sitting on a bench eating out of a Burger King bag, and the kid dropped the bag on the ground. And the dog, the vegan dog, goes tearing over to the bag and just rips it to shreds. He ate that hamburger so fast, it was like he swallowed it whole. And the kid’s screaming and the kid’s parents are screaming, and this couple are just standing there, stunned. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Who doesn’t like funny stories about parents who are more delusional than me, more uppity than you (“more brave than me: more blonde than you”)? But letting the novel pursue that line of easy agreement derails any chance it had of looking at the issues seriously.

So it tells Portia’s story which is predictable and sad. Her lifelong rebellion against her mother has turned her into a ragdoll of a person, who, when faced with adversity, does nothing. The happy endings are achieved first by Portia cheating (and getting fired) and then by a detour “she had no real intention of making.” It’s an absorbing story, and I enjoyed reading it, but by the end, it was like eating a lot of a food that tastes really good and is bad for you in large quantities…like the pecan pie I made for Christmas dinner, or the black-eyed pea dip made with cheese and butter that we ate for New Year’s.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2012 12:07 pm

    Hee. Yeah. My feelings exactly.

    • January 3, 2012 8:13 am

      Oh! It’s startling when we agree on fiction; our tastes can be so different!

  2. January 2, 2012 12:09 pm

    Oh, I don’t think I would like this one, really. As someone who has gone through the public school system from kindergarten to grad school, I get so annoyed by people who think they’re so much better than others for attending one school vs. another. The sense of privilege that comes with such an enormous price tag just really turns me off.

    • January 3, 2012 8:15 am

      Portia is actually very sensitive to that sense of privilege when she talks to prospective students. About herself, though, she doesn’t see it so much.

  3. January 2, 2012 12:21 pm

    I read Admission in an advance copy (which I believe I gave to Jennifer Delahunty), and had much the same reaction as you did. Or else, I think I did, it’s been a while. I do remember liking her earlier The Sabbathday River, which is an intense read.

    • January 3, 2012 8:17 am

      In some ways it’s not fair to be disappointed in this novel for not being more than it is. But she kind of sets herself up for that by including some of the social criticism and then, like Portia, going inert on us.

  4. January 2, 2012 2:18 pm

    i enjoyed reading it, and liked the glimpse into a world i know little of, but some couple of months after having finished it, i can’t remember a thing about it. so, maybe like chinese food – tastes good going down, and an hour later you’re hungry again. 🙂

    • January 3, 2012 8:18 am

      Interesting, the variety of food metaphors… Thanks for passing it on to Freshhell to pass on to me!

  5. January 2, 2012 2:36 pm

    Aarti – I went to both public and private schools, from Pre-K to grad school. Though I do take your point, I have to say that I met plenty of snobs in both places.My experience was that the best-grounded people were the ones attending private schools on scholarship who were very much aware that they and their parents (etc.) paid a far larger percentage of their income for this education. They seemed to take learning more seriously.

    • January 3, 2012 8:19 am

      Some money worries were set up at the beginning, but like most of the other interesting issues, died out when Portia’s own special little story began to take over.

  6. January 2, 2012 5:26 pm

    I want to read this! Is it fiction or a memoir? oh, ok. I’ll go look it up…
    Happy New Year!

    • January 3, 2012 8:21 am

      It’s quite assuredly fiction. But the parent “bouncers” are real. At my daughter’s college, they literally have the students sit on one side of a gym, and the parents on the other. Then they’re allowed to meet for fifteen minutes to say goodbye.

  7. January 3, 2012 8:05 pm

    I always thought this was a thinly disguised account of being an admissions officer too! Still, that story about the dog cracked me up. I was actually eyeing this up at B&N the other day — they had it on sale for $5.98.

  8. January 4, 2012 7:31 am

    The story I’ve read is that the author, whose husband teaches at Princeton, asked Admissions if she could work with them for a few months as research for the novel.

  9. January 7, 2012 10:45 pm

    I picked this one up whne Border’s went out of business but had no idea it wasn’t more about the Admissions angle until I read your review. The story your included is funny so maybe I’ll like it.

    • January 7, 2012 11:26 pm

      If you read it to find out what happens to Portia you’ll probably like it. I’ll be interested to see what you think.

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