In the months preceding its publication, Jean Hanff Korelitz’s Admission received more than its share of tabloid-style hype, all of which focused on, let’s say, the nonfiction aspect of the novel: the glimpse Korelitz offers of the Ivy League admissions process, a subject of rabid fascination for the American middle class.
In fact, while the novel is very much about that process — it follows a Princeton admissions officer through one application season — it’s really a sort of latter-day Victorian novel, a thick, satisfying page-turner in the vein of Eliot or perhaps Hardy, with a lovely, maddening heroine at its center. That heroine, 38-year-old Portia Nathan — the admissions officer in question — finds her carefully constructed life begins to unravel during the very months when she must read through thousands of undergraduate essays.
Portia is Jewish, but her ethnicity (for she is deeply secular and somewhat self-consciously assimilated) doesn’t truly come into play until the novel’s third section, a flashback to her college years at Dartmouth, when she finds herself slightly alienated from her prep school peers. Raised by a radical feminist mother in Northampton, Portia isn’t quite your typical Dartmouth student, and at first she falls in with the campus’ tiny Bohemian fringe. The group is led by Rebecca Marrow, “a flower of Ashkenazi frizz in a sea of limp WASP coiffure,” who runs a salon of sorts in her cinderblock dorm room, serving smoked salmon and French wine to the poets and actors and other refugees from the Greek scene.
But Portia has, perversely, been nursing a crush on Tom Stadley, a handsome jock and (of course) member of the school’s most conservative fraternity, whose mother is rumored to be a rabid anti-Semite — and who himself, according to Rebecca, has a “thing for Jewish girls.” Midway through their sophomore year, Tom turns his attention to Portia, asking her at the start of their courtship, “You’re Jewish, right?” Recalling Rebecca’s offhand comment about Tom’s romantic inclinations, lovesick Portia knows that she should simply answer ‘yes,’ for this is, strictly speaking, the truth.
And yet she pauses, “turning [the] question in her addled brain,” thinking over the varying ways in which she could answers, the various truths available to her: that she is an atheist, that she cannot speak Hebrew, that she never knew her father and he actually might not be or have been Jewish. “Her religious upbringing was limited to the brass menorah Susannah had produced one year when she was small, lit two nights running and abandoned…on the mantelpiece, and also to Susannah’s brief flirtation with feminist seders.….”
Her musings, in short, perfectly define the peculiar situation of the secular American Jew, complete with her slight discomfort — a discomfort she can’t quite articulate — that in answering “yes,” as she finally does, she’s somehow admitting to a whole host of stereotypes and clichés, somehow turning herself into an object. And yet this, for the moment, is what she wants — to be the object of Tom’s affection, no matter if he’s drawn to her because of misplaced ideas about sensual, passionate Jewesses.