Jean Hanff Korelitz Admission (2009).
This book sent chills of the 'there but for the grace of God' variety down my spine. It pushed a lot of late 30s angsty buttons for me. Smart, educated woman, dead-end relationship, satisfying job, nervous breakdown, change calling, last chance... - those sort of buttons. Of course, I am nothing like Portia the Admissions Officer at Princeton in even the broader details ("a synchronicity of tweed and cashmere and brown leather boots, überschoolgirl, Sylvia Plath minus the pearls and plus the sunglasses, but comfortably of the world she was about to enter"), but this book really does hit the spot as an angst novel for women of a certain age.
How many people with just her qualifications and just her skills were doing time in some cubicle somewhere, moving numbers around, dying inside?
The title Admission plays with the various nuances of the word: letting students in; letting secrets out; making admissions... Regarding Portia's job, the book is a fascinating look at the admissions process of a major university. There is a sense in which this book could have gone down quite a different path and become something of an exposé along the lines, say, of Barbara Ehrenreich's undercover investigation of poorly paid workers in Nickel and Dimed. Hanff Korelitz chose the fictional route and has produced a really quite wonderful book. The detail with which she establishes her protagonist's seeming impermeability and then slowly strips her back to the emotional bone is quite eerie. For Portia, her job is something for which she perceives herself ideally suited and her life as it stands is also, at least in unexamined form, enough. Commenting on her mother's full life of good works and activisim, Portia notes that,
Her gift lay elsewhere, as in the knack for isolation, the ability to make herself perfectly alone in the world - away from anyone she had harmed, and anyone else who might have cared enough to help her, and everyone who hadn't known, which was everyone.
As we see, all is not what it seems and a crisis is coming.
Portia is a sixteen year fixture in her job when she encounters a class of students and their teacher who rock her foundations:
That these kids, individually and collectively, had refused to meet her expectations was, after all, not their fault, but she actually felt a little annoyed with them for confounding her. She had weathered nearly sixteen years of teenagers, always at just this moment in their lives, always coming up to the same fork in the road... She knew how to recognize the good girls and the diligent boys, the rebels and the fuck-ups, the artsy kids who knew nothing about art and the ones who had art burning inside them. She could spot the blinkered athletes and the pillars of some future community, the strivers of every stripe and shade, the despairing and despaired of. Almost every single one of them occupied a place that had been previously occupied by someone else, and someone else before that - someone elses who looked like them and sounded like them and thought like them. Sixteen years of drummers and different drummers, poets and players. But these students...they were not taking their seats. She was having trouble putting them in their places.
The encounter becomes the catalyst for a re-examination of her life, made more urgent by the breakdown of her long-term relationship when her defacto partner drops the bomb-shell that he is leaving to live with his pregnant academic colleague. I don't want to give anything else away, but this is a very satisfyingly constructed read with plenty of literary allusions (there's an interesting Plath-like undertone, for instance) and a lot to get involved in in this story of a woman who is "the ghost in her story. She had spent years haunting her own life, without ever noticing."
If you liked this... A university book? A mid-life crisis book? I guess we're in David Lodge territory in that case.