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Admission    by Jean Hanff Korelitz order for
by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Order:  USA  Can
Grand Central, 2009 (2009)
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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Portia Nathan has worked in a college admissions office ever since she graduated from college herself, adrift and unsure about what she wanted to do with her life. She found that she liked the work so much and was so good at it that she was promoted to admissions officer at her alma mater, Dartmouth College. She stayed there for five years before moving on to Princeton, where she has been working for ten years as Admissions opens.

Her first job at Princeton was selling the college to, and reviewing applications from, high schools on the West Coast. However, she has finally managed to get her territory transferred to the East Coast, so now she visits many more private and prep schools than she found on the West Coast. She recruits from the public high schools too, of course, but because most of the private schools are so highly competitive, her role when visiting the prep schools involves trying to fend off too many well-qualified applicants more than it does recruiting. She also must frequently explain Princeton's extremely competitive and ever-changing admissions choices to parents and children who feel entitled to admission, either because of family members who went there or students' sterling grades.

We follow Portia as she visits schools at the beginning of the book, learning about her job as she visits a prep school that always sends students to Princeton. During her talk and the question and answer session that follows, we become aware of how her visits usually go. Her second stop that day, however, is anything but normal. Quest School in New Hampshire is a new prep school near where she grew up. However, the school couldn't be more different from other prep schools or even the public high schools that she visits.

Quest is extremely small and informal, with students encouraged to participate in all aspects of school life, such as tending the livestock. Her problems during this visit range from not being able to find the teacher who asked her to come to the lack of a video machine, and she is questioned acerbically, even rudely, by a girl who demands that she explain why going to college is so important. Portia finds herself unaccountably attracted to John, a teacher at the school, who seems to know more about her than he should, and we begin to wonder about the mystery that pervades the first half of the book.

Portia is a troubled young woman at the beginning of the novel, whose troubles only magnify as the story progresses. The title takes on new meaning as she sinks into depression over the changes in her tidy life. I loved this book and the subtle ways in which the plot was developed. Portia's character, for good or ill, unfolds slowly but surely toward her own admissions about her past and her present problems. Her judgment of herself and her situation is harsh, and sometimes the reader's judgment rises against her as well, but the more we learn, the more sympathy we have for Portia now and Portia then.

The other characters are equally well-rounded. We understand what motivates them, and they are real, believable people. Along the way we are given an incisive picture of college admissions procedures in a changing world. Admission is Jean Hanff Korelitz's fifth novel, and I only wonder why I haven't heard of her before. But I can now look forward to reading more of her books, without waiting months or years for another one to be published.

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