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Novel finds drama in Ivy League admissions frenzy

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MALCOLM RITTER | April 10, 2009 07:33 AM EST | AP


"Admission" (Grand Central Publishing, 464 pages, $24.99), by Jean Hanff Korelitz: Over the past few months, high school seniors have been finding out whether they've been accepted or rejected by the colleges to which they'd applied. There's plenty of drama in their lives.

But how about the lives of the people who judged their applications?

In her latest novel, "Admission," Jean Hanff Korelitz tells the story of Portia Nathan, a 38-year-old admissions office at Princeton University. She's one of the people charged with luring talented, high-achieving students to apply to her school, and then helping to decide which carefully constructed applications win an acceptance and which are sent to the shredder.

The book vividly portrays the atmosphere and details of Nathan's job as her personal story unfolds. And that's fascinating for those of us who've gotten good or bad news from colleges for which we yearned, or shepherded ambitious children through the gauntlet of the application process.

Sure, we know about the "full-throttle adolescent anxiety" Nathan encounters when she visits high schools, and the complaints about unfairness in college admissions that a high-voltage mother slaps her with at a party. It's not surprising that people greet Nathan with "panic-laced fascination" when they find out what she does.

But here, we listen to high school counselors lobbying for their applicants. We enter the college admissions office and watch Nathan evaluate applications. We sit in on the admissions committee as it votes. And we see Nathan try to sell her colleagues on a brilliant but unaccomplished boy she met at an experimental school in New Hampshire.

(In an interview, Korelitz told The Associated Press that her behind-the-scenes portrait was drawn from her experience working part-time at the Princeton admissions office, interviews with admissions deans at several schools, nonfiction books and "common sense.")

It's that New Hampshire boy, in fact, who unites Nathan's professional and personal life. She's dedicated to her job and cares deeply about the kids who apply, feeling a "little trill of excitement" every time she opens an applicant's folder for the first time. But her personal life is hollow at the core. Her life with her lover of 16 years, an English professor, is merely comfortable as the book begins. She has a strained relationship with her mother. She has a hard time remembering the last time she felt truly happy.

When Nathan meets her Mr. Right on a business trip, it looks like her life might take off. But she pushes him away. What's wrong with her? Eventually, we find out that she has buried a secret since her own college days, one she finds shameful. Meeting the New Hampshire kid brings it back to the surface. She thinks of a way to set things right _ at the risk of her career.

Korelitz tells the tale from Nathan's point of view, and unfortunately, she often lets Nathan's ruminations run on too long. That slows the story, and the reader sometimes feels trapped in the heroine's brain.

But "Admission" is still a good read. And if you have any interest in the merry-go-round of big-time college admissions, it's even better.