Monday, May 6, 2013

Book 64: Admission

3.5 stars.

*Disclaimer* I haven't yet seen the recent movie based on this book, staring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd (though I'd like to). I bought the book for Kindle when it was a daily deal (and yes, because I was interested in the movie).

I went back and forth frequently about what to rate this book. Ultimately, while there are a lot of things I like about the book, there are still things that keep me from loving it.

Admission (2013) Poster

Portia Nathans is an admissions officer--and her career is the most important factor in how she identifies herself. After starting at Dartmouth, she's worked at Princeton for the past ten years, first with students on the West Coast, and now with students in New England. She's efficient, hard-working, and compassionate--but she has almost no life outside her work, despite the fact that she's been living with a man for sixteen years. However, two things occur early on to shake her up: on a routine visit to schools, she stops by a new, experimental school (Quest), where she meets an old classmate from Dartmouth, John, and a brilliant young auto-didact named Jeremy.

Shortly after her return to Princeton, her personal life implodes, as her long-term boyfriend reveals that he's cheated on her--and that the other woman is pregnant. He leaves, and Portia spirals into a pit of depression as other secrets come out from her past. Confronting her emerging feelings for John and her growing determination to help Jeremy get into Princeton provide further fuel for the plot.

Reading a summary of the plot like this, it's easy to see where some of the shortcomings of the novel are. The plot is not the strong-point here--for a long time, very little happens, and much of the novel is spent describing the students Portia is considering for admissions, the admissions process, and past events from Portia's life that shape the contained, somewhat repressed woman that she has become.

For readers who don't like this kind of introspection, the novel will be slow going. Personally, I enjoyed the glimpses into Portia's head--I found Portia to be a very sympathetic character--and the description of the admissions process was FASCINATING. Really, I think the book is worth reading for this alone, although it forces me to admit that I would have been one of those thousands of students who do not get in--the bright, hard-working students who just are not exceptional enough. (That thought is more than a little bit lowering, given how central my being a good student was to my identity for a very, very long time).

Some other issues I had with the novel: one of the minor characters, a young pregnant woman living with Portia's eccentric mother, is described as being Mormon, and depicted as coming from a short-sighted community where women are expected to stay close to home, go to school for two years, and then have a bunch of kids. The young woman also believed her family would be unable to cope with her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. As an educated Mormon woman (I have a master's degree and a PhD), I have to admit that this doesn't look much like most of the Mormons I know. I recognize that there are some people who continue to hold limited expectations for women like that, but many more do not. And most of the families I know might be disappointed at a teenage pregnancy, but they would still be willing to help and support the young woman. (Also, the author had some frankly inaccurate statements--for one, Joseph Smith never was considered a god like Shaker Ann Lee).

I'm glad I read it; I enjoyed the compassionate look into the admissions process; but I don't know that I would recommend reading the novel for the sake of the story alone.

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