Princeton University admissions officer Portia Nathan spends most of her life either doing her job or thinking about her job. Even as she travels to the schools in her area to talk about Princeton and encourage seniors to apply, she reads student applications on the plane and in her motel room. They are heart-breaking in their earnestness as the students try to persuade the admissions office to accept them. (Snippets from fictional college application essays preface each chapter to good effect; the essays range from powerful to laughable.)
Portia is delighted to be in charge of the New England district after working for many years with schools on the west coast. As the story opens, she is speaking to students at Deerfield, a prep school. She is struck by how homogenous they are --- mostly wealthy and with a general appearance of being blonde and fair. When Portia talks to this group, their response is typical. There are the super-confident kids, such as the boy who shakes her hand, introduces himself and suggests he was swaddled as a newborn in a Princeton blanket. Others appear fearful; they have dedicated their young lives to the goal of getting into Princeton or a similar school. Will they make it? Or is all that work for naught?
The next school Portia heads for is quite different from Deerfield. Quest School is located in the wilds of New Hampshire, at the end of a road called Inspiration Way. When she arrives, she finds a barn with cows grazing nearby. A teacher named John introduces her to the school, recently started by a small group. Portia is a bit nonplussed as she prepares to give her talk in the middle of a cow barn. She is even more flummoxed when the seniors react to her uncharacteristically. Some have not heard of Princeton, and one girl challenges any assertion that a college education is a necessity.
As the afternoon passes, Portia is intrigued by many of these unusual students. She is particularly fascinated by a young man named Jeremy, who has read widely enough to educate himself on a number of subjects and yet admits he struggled in the school he attended before Quest. She talks about Jeremy with John later in a discussion that veers off course when John states that he remembers her. John, it seems, attended Dartmouth when Portia did. The mention of her student years makes Portia queasy as she works to quell an emotional reaction to that time in her life. She leaves abruptly.
Portia is reading student applications in her motel room when John calls to apologize. He invites her to dinner, which leads to an entanglement that is not at all typical for Portia, who must finally tell John that she is involved in a long-term domestic relationship. But when Portia arrives home to her boyfriend, her life is on the brink of unraveling. As a result, Portia, who has refused to acknowledge her own inner life for years, will inevitably face a terrible long-hidden realization. This sudden comprehension has the power to destroy her.
ADMISSION's plot pace is leisurely, particularly when dealing with the process of college admissions. Readers looking for a fast-paced beach read should probably look elsewhere. But those who can give themselves fully to Portia's musings and the unhurried uncovering of her secrets will be richly rewarded with a satisfying story --- and may suddenly remember how it feels to be deeply involved in a fictional character's life. Highest recommendation for this elegant and thoughtful rendering of a woman's journey from disconnection to realization.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on December 22, 2010