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13th May
written by Steph

I’ve written before about how I’m kind of obsessed with books set in academia.  You might think that since I spend most of my life in an ivory tower that I’d be kind of sick of the whole scene and fiction would be the last place I’d like to revisit it all, but you’d be wrong.  I love books that are set on university campuses, and those that deal with departmental politics.  I’ve seen enough through my own eyes to be somewhat disenfranchised, and yet, there’s still something about higher education that gives me a distinct thrill.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been a student for – gulp – 24 years, so places of learning are what I know best.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m a huge nerd. (I suspect those two options are somewhat interrelated, in that one tends not to study for nearly 90% of one’s life without being rather nerdy. And the fact that I just did math to figure out how much of my life I’ve spent as a student… well, I think you have your answer to the nerd question.) Anyway, I first heard about Admission over at Vintage Reads, where my interest was piqued as it revolves around a woman who works in the Admission Office at Princeton University.  During the early part of the school year, Portia travels around highschools in the New England area pitching Princeton to students. In the spring semester, Portia spends much of her time reading all the applications that come in from her region, evaluating each applicant, deciding whether he or she is Princeton material.  This year, Portia visits a new school where she runs into an old acquaintance from her own college days, one who threatens to unearth painful memories she has since buried deep in the past. Haunted by a fateful decision made in her youth, Portia learns that life-altering decisions are still to come. I really enjoyed the portions of this novel that focused around the college entrance process.  I thought the insight into all of the various factors that contribute to a committee’s decision as to whether someone will gain admission or not was really fascinating.  I was swept back to my own bright-eyed days of applying for universities, first as an undergraduate and then again as a graduate student.  We’ve already established that I’m weird, so I probably would have been a happy clam if this book had just been 500 pages of Portia traveling around, meeting precocious highschoolers and then ruminated on their essays and the ways in which the American Ivy League system has evolved, as well as the politics involved in the admission process and college rankings. But of course, I’d probably be the only person who would genuinely enjoy a book like that, and so there’s far more to Admission than that.  Unfortunately, it’s these other parts that I found disappointing.  At least 50% of the novel revolves around Portia as a woman, rather than Portia the admissions officer, and while I’m all for well-rounded characters, these parts of the novel that delve into her personal life and her past were painfully predictable for me. Around page 200 or so, I called Tony in dismay, saying I was pretty sure I had figured out one of the upcoming twists and maybe a few of the ones in store after that.  I was pretty distraught, because I still had about 300 pages to go, and I wasn’t looking forward to simply having my suspicions confirmed as we went along.  Alas, that’s exactly what happened, and so I feel like on some level I mentally checked out because I saw everything coming from a mile away.  And then when these things were officially revealed, naturally, they were no longer shocking since I’d had a good 60 or so pages to prepare. I love being surprised by books, so this was particularly upsetting for me. I know I’ve also spoken about how I am mildly terrified by long books (though I’m working on getting over that, I promise!), and I will admit that the length of Admission made me grumpy. Not because it was long, but because it felt NEEDLESSLY long.  As in, I really think at least 100 pages could have been trimmed from it without anything but my time being lost. There was a lot of repletion and hammering home of points that even the most obtuse reader would have picked up on, and many of these over-explications wound up feeling like redundant padding. I figure as an author it’s better for people to say “I wish that book had been longer!  I never wanted it to end!” versus the less than complimentary “I wish that book had been shorter!” Sometimes less is more, you know? There were plenty of parts in Admission that I liked a good deal, and I do think it was a successful novel, but there was something about it that struck me as a tad off. I felt the symbolism of the duality of admission – letting things in but also letting things out – was insightful but also perhaps too heavy-handed at times.  In a way, it sometimes felt like a book you could see being assigned in an English class (if only it were shorter!) because of the many layers one can tease apart while running with that theme of admission.  I guess it felt like the author had the theme and then cobbled together a story around it, which is fine, only I don’t necessarily like the meta in my fiction to be so (unintentionally) obvious.  I like knowing an author’s point and purpose, but I suppose I also appreciate subtlety that I felt was lacking here to some extent. All in all, a good read if you’re interested in all things university, as I am, or if you like somewhat conventional emotionally overwrought personal dramas (as I do not). Rating: 3.5 out of 5


  1. I haven’t heard of this one, but I’m not a massive fan of books set in academia so I think the main appeal of this book would be lost on me.

  2. mee

    I’m interested in the academia part, but I’m not a fan of “conventional emotionally overwrought personal dramas”. And seeing how long the book is, I probably would give this a pass. I hate a book that *needlessly* long. A shame though, because I think I might really like that University bits.

  3. 05/13/2010

    I like the university background part of this book and would like to read it. Big books dont faze me. I just finished a couple. It just takes time!

  4. 05/14/2010

    I put this on my TBR sometime last year. I also love books set in academia, so I will probably still give this a try, but I stand warned. 🙂 I find that I too am growing more and more impatient when books seem to ramble. I tend to skim when that happens.

  5. 05/14/2010

    I generally like these kinds of books as well, but I think I would definitely have problems with the predictability and the overwrought drama aspects of the book, so I think I will pass on this one. It’s too bad that the book took a turn for the worse, because it sounded really fascinating in the beginning! I also feel like you do about long books. Often, I just don’t really want to make the investment, but I keep buying them, thinking that I will change my mind! I wish the book had been more satisfying for you, but I do appreciate the honest of your thoughts on it!

  6. 05/14/2010

    @ Jackie: Yeah, for me the academia was a big draw, but if you’ve no interest in the topic, then those parts will probably be really dry for you.
    @ mee: I did legitimately enjoy the uni bits, but the rest was definitely a let-down. I think I could have forgiven the predictability more if the book had been shorter, but if you’re writing a 500 pp book, I want you to make those pages count!
    @ Mystica: If you love long books then maybe you’d be better equipped for the pacing of this one than I was! I think I just don’t have the long-book stamina quite yet!
    @ Priscilla: I really don’t mind books that are long, but so often I feel like these lengthy books really just needed a better editor!
    @ zibilee: If not for the academia bits (which I think would turn some readers off), I could see this being a successful beach read. It’s not necessarily all that challenging, which is sometimes what one wants in a book.

  7. 05/14/2010

    I think like you I would enjoy the parts about the behind the scenes admission process but it sounds like the book was a bit of a drag outside of that. I do plan to read it in the future but probably won’t rush to read it this year.

  8. Rob

    After a 20 year career as a college admission director I think I might take a look at this book. I’m like you when it comes to pages; 400 plus is a lot.

  9. 05/15/2010

    Admit to a love of books about academia too. When I first heard about this one, I was pretty interested but fancied it a quick, in-between kind of read. And then I saw it in the book store and it looked very long given the subject material. Now your thought that it is perhaps needlessly long has me putting it a little further down the list.

  10. 05/15/2010

    @ Kathleen: For me this was a solid read, I suppose, but not one people need to rush out and read. I can see people finding it satisfying, but it’s not life changing.
    @ Rob: Yup, if a book’s going to go past 400 pages, I want the author to earn those pages, not just pad the thing. But I think given your background you’d probably bring some interesting insights to the table with this one.
    @ Frances: I also didn’t realize how big this one was until I picked it up at the library… I’m happy that I read it, but perhaps doubly so that I only borrowed it! 😉

  11. 05/16/2010

    I totally agree with your review 100%

    I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if it solely concentrated on the admission process.

  12. 05/18/2010

    @ Molly: I’m glad to hear it isn’t just me who feels this way! 😀

  13. 05/18/2010

    I have to say I loved every minute of Admission and I didn’t guess that Portia would do what she did at the end. Have you read Prep? Another good academic novel.

  14. 05/19/2010

    @ Nicola: Sometimes I’m oddly prescient when reading books… it creeps me out. I haven’t read Prep, as I’ve heard mixed things. I take it I should check it out?

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