Trying Not to Be Young

Behind the curtain at the college admissions office.

Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99), takes its reader down the yellow brick road of the Ivy League — specifically to the venerable institution of Princeton University. If Princeton, however, is the Emerald City, this novel focuses on the men (and women) behind the curtain: the admissions officers with the power to wave their wands and admit an incoming class of freshmen to a world of privilege and status.

When the book begins, one of these admissions officers, Portia Nathan, has finally gotten the plum assignment of the New England territory, encompassing prestigious boarding schools and shady public schools alike. While doing her “road show” one travel season, she goes to an independent, innovative school and meets two people who will change her life. One is a teacher who knew her (and loved her from afar) during her undergraduate days at Dartmouth; the other is a wild-card student genius whose application to Princeton tests her in unexpected ways. Portia’s love affair with the teacher and her relationship with the student weave inextricably into one another.

Korelitz’s husband, poet Paul Muldoon, is a Princeton professor, and Korelitz herself was once a part-timer in Princeton’s admissions office, experiences lending a potent realism to her writing:

Few of them sounded like kids, they were trying so hard not to be young. They were ventriloquizing the attorneys they thought they wanted to be, or the neuroscientists, or the statesmen…. But so often the newness of them, the flux of their emerging selves, would poke through the essays or the recommendations, stray references to how Jimmy had grown since his difficult freshman year or Jimmy’s own regrettable use of the word awesome. Their confidence was sometimes so hollow, it practically echoed off the page.

Korelitz’s depictions of dorm life almost make the reader’s clothes smell of stale beer. In one scene, the door is “flung open to display the universal décor of the newly emancipated Princeton male: alcoholia (on a shelf, the empty bottles of beer of many nations, all in a row), technology (an oversize television screen and snarls of wires), and Princetoniana (tigers, tigers everywhere…).”

Portia Nathan is Jewish, though only as an afterthought. If anything, this point is the book’s weakest link: her Judaism is solely defined by her non-Jewish college boyfriend, for whom her appeal lies almost completely in the fact that he “has this thing for Jewish girls.” However, the backstory of the non-Jewish boyfriend is crucial to the story taking place in the here-and-now. Ultimately this book is a tale of admissions, literally and metaphorically. It is the story of the choices we make, and how, at the end of the day, they define who we are. 

Jordana Horn is a lawyer and writer at work on her first novel.