Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jean Hanff Korelitz

I've been seeing plenty of great press about the new novel by Ms. Korelitz that came out this week which only served to remind me that her previous book, "Admission," has been on my "to read when I retire" list for way too long. I just finished it and I'm so glad that I did.

I have one question for those of you who have seen the film and may or may not know that it was based on Ms. Korelitz's novel. How on earth could such a serious book with so many mature themes have been turned into a Tina Fey Rom-Com? Yes, it's now number one in my Netflix queue. Let's talk after I see it.

The story is about the aptly named Portia (the quality of mercy) Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, and about the horrendously difficult process by which applications to Ivy League colleges, Princeton in particular, are evaluated and culled. The politicking and behind the scenes lobbying, the deadly long days of final meetings where leaving the room for a bathroom break could be fatal for your favorite prospects, are written with withering clarity.

 It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look and, thanks to the fact that Ms. Korelitz actually spent a semester or two as a reader of applications at Princeton, her writing smacks of the truth. Each chapter begins with a portion of an admissions essay. The stories range from laughably egotistical to distressingly sad and Portia can suss out a fake in a heartbeat.

While on a tour of private schools in the northeast, Portia visits the experimental Quest School and meets Jeremiah, a student who's been chosen for special attention because of his innate intelligence and troubled background in the traditional school setting. She is entranced. For reasons she can't explain even to herself, she wants to see Jeremiah thrive at Princeton and pledges to help him to that end.

Upon returning to New Jersey from New England, Portia discovers in a most humiliating way, that her partner of sixteen years is leaving her for the new English teacher from Oxford. Though their relationship was growing sterile and tired, she thought they would plod along as a couple indefinitely. The breakup throws her into a despondency that is heartbreakingly described. She refuses to bathe, answer mail or phone calls, and forgets to eat, leaving readers to wonder who or what will help her out of this debilitating depression.

The answer is a kick. "Admission" is a winner, full of laugh-out-loud humor, wince-inducing sarcasm and yes, even empathy. Looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of "You Should Have Known."

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