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Vol. LXIII, No. 14
 
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
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Book Review

Illuminating Admisssions: Jean Korelitz Takes Some Risks and Prevails in New Novel

Stuart Mitchner

Sometimes she imagined them [applicants for admission to Princeton], waiflike across Cannon Green and behind West College and along Nassau Street, winding their white, supplicating hands through the great iron gates…. Still, when their faces came back to her now, swimming up from the accounts of debating triumphs and stage fright at the piano recital, she sometimes wished she’d been able to say to them: Don’t. Don’t try for this. Don’t want this or, worse, make some terrible connection between who you are as a human being and whether or not you get in.
from Admission

Portia Nathan, the heroine of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s new novel, Admission (Grand Central $24.99), is a reader of applications in the Office of Admissions at Princeton, where the author herself was an outside reader in 2006 and 2007.

I don’t use the word “heroine” lightly. The customary term is “protagonist” and would have served well enough for the woman you meet in the opening chapter “who managed to get her heart broken three times” while reading her way through a folder of applications on a flight from Newark to Hartford. Feeling heartbroken for “academically unadmittable” seventeen-year-olds desperately composing (or trying to compose) the most effective presentation of themselves does not a heroine make. Nor, even, is it enough to imagine the applicants as “waiflike” lost souls thrusting “white supplicating hands” through FitzRandolph Gate. It’s all too easy for admissions officers to speak of feeling the pain of the parents and students begging for admittance and being denied at a rate made clear by the recent news that almost ten percent of Princeton’s 21,964 applicants have been admitted as members of the Class of 2013. My math’s terrible (you don’t want to know what my SAT scores were), but those numbers put something like 20,000 waifs on the wrong side of FitzRandolph Gate.

Now what would it take to make Portia Nathan, this childless admissions professional, a heroine? How do you make a word like “waif” really mean something to the person using it, however feelingly, in the thorny context of admissions? In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne puts a charge into the word “adultery” by having Hester Prynne wear the big “A” on her breast. Without making too much of the way the “A” in Admission is stressed in the cover art, it should at least be pointed out that, like Hester Prynne, Portia Nathan harbors a heavy secret, something she never admits, not even to her own mother, nor to the man most intimately involved, nor to the man she’s been living with in Princeton in a semblance of domestic normality — until her common law husband, a Princeton professor, abandons her for a woman who’s going to bear his child.

Korelitz on Small World
The place was aptly named, a true crossroad for nearly every stratum of local society: moms fresh from school dropoff, students, faculty, the relaxed, dressed-down men who’d made so much money in their corporate lives that they could now run mysterious empires from downtown Princeton. The talk was a mixture of university dross, heady cerebral of every stripe, local fund-raising and local boards, with scattered scribblers trying to write their novels and the town’s few social misfits, who sometimes took a berth and stayed for hours, nursing an herbal tea.

It’s hard to doubt Korelitz’s awareness of the Hester connection, if only because the concept of “admission” is ingeniously developed and illuminated throughout the novel. Such is the associative power radiating out from the title that the notion of students whose very lives seem to depend on it make being admitted comparable to being born. To deny admission is to deny life. And as the heroine’s experience of the word deepens for her and for us, the words Korelitz uses carry more weight by the time she writes of “the great annual bombardment of lives — little lives … among the hundreds and thousands and ultimately hundreds of thousands of seventeenyear-olds, all fresh and new.”

The Quest Begins

Sophie, the heroine of Korelitz’s last novel, The White Rose (2004), won you over immediately through the chemistry of beauty and sweet disorder. Portia is not so charming and not so beautiful, and she has more than her share of disorder, which is not always sweet. Yet she becomes a richer character, and what the author does with her is more daring and more ambitious. When you first see her in action she’s the admissions professional full of stock answers as she fields questions from seniors in a high school she’s visiting on behalf of Princeton. At this juncture, you may think that there’s no way she and her subject are going to keep you reading for 449 pages.

Things get more interesting as soon as she finds herself in relatively alien territory. The school is called Quest and like “admissions,” the term resonates throughout the novel. It’s not long before Portia enlarges her limited sex life, has to endure the hosting of a classically dreadful faculty dinner, and is abandoned by her partner. Needless to say, it’s a great relief to find a flawed, messy, passionate, acutely vulnerable person under the professional admissions-officer veneer.

Amazing Moment

Kirkus Reviews calls Admission a “fine, moving example of traditional realistic fiction.” True enough except that the terminology ignores the author’s larger literary ambitions; at the same time it suggests one of the book’s few defects, which is a surfeit of “traditional realistic” detail, particularly in regard to the inner workings of the machinery of admissions. The extent to which the process is documented and defended inevitably results in an excess of shoptalk. Depending on how curious you are about what goes on behind the scenes, you may find that you learn more about admissions than you want to know. But if you let that aspect of the story put you off, you risk missing out on the heroics of both author and character, which converge about three-fourths of the way through the novel in the form of a coincidence so audacious Dickens himself might have admired it. (In fact, there’s a nod to the master when Korelitz at one point has Portia reading her way through the works of Dickens.) So enormous is the revelation, you will find yourself forced to read the passage more than once, blinking your eyes, scratching your head, and perhaps even searching previous chapters for clues. Instead of asking you to “suspend disbelief,” the author is asking, “Are you with me?” If you’ve read this far, you’re with her.

What makes an author heroic and a character a heroine? For the author, it’s the boldness of the abovementioned act of imagination and the way it leads into a flashback to Portia’s own college days that proves to be one of the most brilliantly written sections of the book. The act that makes Portia a hero is no less bold. In fact, it’s criminal, outrageous, unforgivable, and perversely heroic. No less daringly, the author gambles with narrative credibility in order to give the character a mission worthy enough to redeem the subterfuge she performs in the admissions office (you’ll be cheering her on).

Plenty of Princeton

Admission may have more of Princeton in it than any novel since This Side of Paradise. Residents will enjoy the local color and people in the academic community may find themselves playing guessing games as to who’s who among a cast that includes an unpleasant Virginia Woolf scholar from Oxford and a distinguished professor whose life is unravelling.

But then so is Portia Nathan’s. Admission puts it all together.

Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose husband plays in a band called Rackett, will be reading from her novel at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 15, at Labyrinth Books.

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