The rather tacky cover of this book, taken from the very tacky film adaptation of this fine novel, should not put you off reading it. Jean Hanff Korelitz is an excellent writer, as I've said before here and will be saying again soon on Shiny New Books. Having read her two most recent novels, I'm now chasing up her backlist. This one was published in 2009, and 'adapted' (chopped about, essential plot details completely changed) in 2013. But let's forget the instantly forgettable film and concentrate on the intelligent, thought-provoking and heart-warming novel.
Portia Nathan is an admissions officer at Princeton University. She's had the job for sixteen years, and for most of that time has been living with her partner Mark, an Eng Lit professor from the UK. As the novel begins, Portia is embarking on an important part of her job, visiting schools in the local area to drum up applications to the university. There's something deeply ironic about this as Princeton will only accept a tiny percentage of the kids who apply, but they need to keep applications high in order to score at or near the top of a widely read university grading system. So most of the young people who Portia excites at the thought of coming to Princeton will be disappointed.
Most of the schools Portia visits are well known to her, but this year she has been invited to a newly formed experimental school called Quest. It's a school that combines high academic standards with many extracurricular activities like building, gardening, care for animals and more. She's greeted there by a teacher, John, who apparently had a crush on her when (though she doesn't remember this) they were at university together. He introduces her to a student, Jeremiah Balakian, who he says is the most brilliant and well-read person he has ever encountered. Portia is suitably impressed, and convinces Jeremiah to apply to Princeton. She knows he would do stupendously well there, but his chances of acceptance are slim, since he did very badly at the school he attended before Quest, having been pursuing his own extraordinarily ambitious programme of reading rather than attempting the far too simple tests. At Quest, however, he has achieved top scores on every exam he has taken, without any preparatory courses, and Portia hopes this may be enough to swing it.
While all this is going on, Portia's personal life is in tatters. Mark leaves her for a deeply unpleasant new professor from England ('the world expert on Virginia Woolf') and she slides into a decline, forgetting to eat, wash, change her clothes or answer her phone or mail. Her feelings are rather complicated by the fact that while visiting Quest she had ended up having a startlingly passionate night with John - but Portia is very good at ignoring complicated feelings. We gather from quite early on that she has a secret in her past which she refuses to confront, but which we may be able to guess at from the fact that she is startled and somewhat upset to realise that all this year's applicants were born in the same year and are now 17 years old. The reveal doesn't come until a good three-quarters of the way through the novel, but when it does it explains a lot about Portia and the way she has always dealt with emotions. It also complicates her determination to get Jeremiah into Princeton. In the end, all these factors are going to bring about some highly uncharacteristic behaviour and lead to a complete change in Portia's life, but one which we are confident is going to result in great happiness.
I have to admit that there's a lot here about university politics and admissions procedures, which is certainly fascinating to anyone who, like me, has worked within the system - my experience has largely been in the UK but I did have a taste of the very different American procedures during a sadly rather brief period at a university in Pennsylvania. Essentially, students in the UK stand or fall by their A-level results, whereas in the US, results form only a part of the complex business of proving yourself to be a well-rounded person (and having family members who attended your university of choice makes a difference). Undoubtedly this is an over-simplification but there's enough truth in it to provide food for thought. But believe me you don't have to have any background in all this to enjoy the ironic wit with which Korelitz lays out the complexities of the whole procedure. And then of course there's the rest of the extremely enjoyable plot - I haven't mentioned Portia's relationship with her infuriating lifelong feminist mother, who conceived her via a brief encounter on a train with a man whose name she forgot to ask, or John's tender upbringing of the Ugandan boy he adopted during a Peace Corps visit to Africa. In fact all the secondary characters are full of vivid and credible life, and this applies most of all to Portia, who is a totally believable portrait of an intelligent and dedicated woman who has huge lessons to learn about her own emotional life.
Jean Hanff Korelitz is married to the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who is a Professor at Princeton, and she herself worked there in the admissions department for a couple of years. I've enjoyed everything of hers I've read so far - just a couple of early novels left to catch up with. She's also a published poet and has written non-fiction books and books for children. Do give her a whirl!