You guys… this book is wonderful.
I’m not exactly convinced that the movie will be equally amazing, or even slightly amazing, but anyone even contemplating seeing the movie should read the book first. Actually, read it right now. I’m not kidding.
The blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:
“Admissions. Admission. Aren’t there two sides to the word? And two opposing sides…It’s what we let in, but it’s also what we let out.”
For years, 38-year-old Portia Nathan has avoided the past, hiding behind her busy (and sometimes punishing) career as a Princeton University admissions officer and her dependable domestic life. Her reluctance to confront the truth is suddenly overwhelmed by the resurfacing of a life-altering decision, and Portia is faced with an extraordinary test. Just as thousands of the nation’s brightest students await her decision regarding their academic admission, so too must Portia decide whether to make her own ultimate admission.
Admission is at once a fascinating look at the complex college admissions process and an emotional examination of what happens when the secrets of the past return and shake a woman’s life to its core.
When I was younger and full of the snobbery of college-age promise, I always read with pen in hand, ready to make notations, certain that this or that work of literature would suddenly explain the world to me in stark relief and beautiful language. Sometimes it did; mostly, that pen was just a sign of my readiness to be transformed. In the intervening decade, as my life became more full and my reading choices less profound (some would say; others, myself included, could argue this assumption, but that’s another blog post for another day), I stopped my habit of clutching a pen.
By the time I reached page 52 of Admission, I was digging in my purse for my favorite pen (and thanking the PR folk at Grand Central Publishing for sending me a paper copy of the book, enabling me to feel the extreme satisfaction of underlining this sentence: “There is a sound to waiting. It sounds like held breath pounding its fists against the walls of the lung, damp and muffled beats.”) All told, I employed my pen eleven times to mark passages that seemed to me beautiful or particularly interesting or important. I might have taken the time to underline more had I not read the last 2/3 of the book in one sitting, desperate to watch the journey unfold.
That careful unfolding is perhaps the best thing about the book. The prose is beautiful, the story interesting, the backdrop profound, but it was the clarity of the author’s light shining into the murk her character had encouraged her life to become that floored me. Portia is simultaneously far too aware of herself and utterly blind to the reality of her life. Her struggle with the weight of the past, the penance of the present, and the impossibility of the future is at once shocking and intimately familiar.
I don’t often read other reviews before publishing my own review on a book, but this time I did. The critical praise included in the book’s front matter seemed a bit strange to me, with most of the reviews focusing on the glimpses of college admissions culture that one can glean from this book. That struck me as odd, because it did not seem to me that the book was about college admissions at all. In fact, it is about Portia and her slow, difficult, and at times traumatic, recovery of her life. Her sojourn in Dartmouth’s and Princeton’s Admission offices is the blindfold Portia uses to hide from reality.
“Her only tether was to the armchair and the orange folders, traveling slowly from stack to stack across her wooden lap desk, like that T.S. Eliot poem about the life measured out in coffee spoons, except that she was measuring hers with other people’s lives, which they had measured into these life-folders. Short lives, slivers of lives, fictions of lives.” (140)
“Her life was a port in the storm, a craft in unpredictable waters. Her life, it occurred to her, was a careful refuge from life.” (166)
One can, undeniably, learn quite a lot about college admissions while reading the book, but all those sections are a carefully crafted distraction from what’s really going on with Portia. Along its winding road, this novel delves into the potential of young womanhood, along with all of its attendant responsibilities to justify and validate the struggles of all the women who came before; the weight of self-reproach and shame that falls on those who buckle under the pressure; the awareness of failure that marks middle age. It also hints at the joy accessible to those who live, not through coffee spoons or any other measure of habit, but through themselves.
I am absolutely thrilled to be able to offer a giveaway of Admission, hosted by Grand Central Publishing. One lucky commenter, selected at random by random.org, will win a copy of the movie-tie-in trade paperback (U.S. only… sorry!). Please answer this question in a comment below in order to enter this giveaway (or feel free to make up your own topic, if you prefer, but please say something substantive…it’s just more interesting!):
- Assuming you wrote them, do you remember what you said in your college application essays? Care to share the topic(s)?
The giveaway will run from Wednesday, March 20 until Tuesday, March 30 at 11:59 p.m. pacific time. The winner must be willing to provide a mailing address in order to claim the prize.
*FTC Disclosure – I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Grand Central Publishing, in exchange for an honest review.*