Reading Group Guide
1. Dean of Admission Clarence Porter tells Portia that she needs “a little shaking up” (page 7). How does his statement foreshadow the “shaking up” that Portia’s life will undergo as the rest of the novel unfolds?
2. The title of this book is a play between the definitions of “admission” (to let something in, as in college admissions) and “admission” (to let something out, as in a confession). John muses on page 73, “Aren’t there two sides to the word? And two opposing sides.” How does each side play out in Portia’s story?
3. On page 141, as Portia scans the birth dates of this year’s applicants, she thinks, “So it’s here…As if she hadn’t been waiting, and for years, for just this moment.” What exactly has Portia been waiting for? In what ways has her life to this point wrapped itself around the anticipation of this moment?
4. In Chapter 15, when Jeremiah remarks on Portia’s unusual name, she tells him that her mother named her after the character in The Merchant of Venicebecause Susannah hoped that her daughter would grow up to be very wise. Do you think Portia’s name fits her? In what ways does she live up to and/or depart from the dreams that Susannah had for her?
5. Portia has a soft spot for unconventional applicants like Simone and Jeremiah, in part because she feels that she is able to identify with their needs and anxieties. In what ways is Portia herself a misfit? How does this affect her social and professional interactions?
6. How would you characterize the relationship between Portia and her mother? Are they more similar than Portia imagines? In what ways are they different?
7. On page 299, Portia finds herself defending the justice of the admissions process to Diana. “Fair is kind of an imprecise concept,” she says. What has been your experience with the college admissions process? Do you agree with her argument that “fairness” is not the most useful concept with which to measure admissions decisions?
8. At different moments in the book, both Helen and Diana discount Portia’s competence as an admissions officer on the basis of the fact that she did not come to her job by means of formal training. In both instances, Portia finds herself struggling to explain the abstract nature of what makes her qualified to do what she does. How do you feel about the fact that a career affecting so many people so profoundly does not have an established education/ training track?
9. Early on in the book, Portia laments that nobody really cares about her --- all they care about is what she does for a living. And yet on page 319, she blames herself for her own isolation: “How she had managed to fool anyone…mystified her…Because the price of her gift for evasion was to have no one, not one person, who understood how horrible she felt.” Do you agree with her self- assessment? How much of Portia’s loneliness is a result of her own defensive retreat from the world, and how much of it is a product of circumstances beyond her control?
10. A major theme in this book is the grief that accompanies losing a child --- whether to abortion, adoption, or even just to the process of growing up and leaving home for college. How do the various parents that we encounter in the book --- Portia, Mark, John, Susannah, Deborah, and the innumerable parents of college- bound seniors --- respond differently to the process of letting go of their children?
11. The internal lives of young people feature prominently in this book. Their voices, in the form of “excerpts” from college essays, begin each chapter and form the measure of Portia’s life as the story follows her through one full admissions season. What do you think Portia finds in the company of young people that she is unable to get from adult society? How do Portia’s interactions with teenagers like Caitlin, Jeremiah, and Simone affect her own sense of direction and purpose?
12. Portia’s decision at the end of the book goes against conventional standards of ethical behavior and ultimately costs her way of life. What would you have done in her situation? How does Portia’s act compare to the behavior of the parents of applicants, which she has sometimes disparaged?
13. As Portia leaves her office at the end of the Chapter 31, she takes only her copy of the Sylvia Plath poem “The Applicant” with her. Why do you think she chooses to keep this particular piece of her old life? Has the significance of the poem’s words changed for her since we first encountered it on page 321? If so, how?
14. The last scene in the book sees Portia returning home to visit her mother. In what ways does the story as a whole serve as a “homecoming” process for Portia?
- Publication Date: January 15, 2013
- Genres: Fiction
- Mass Market Paperback: 656 pages
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- ISBN-10: 145552980X
- ISBN-13: 9781455529803