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Originally published Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 12:06 AM

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Book review

'Admission' chronicles the secret life of a college-admissions officer

In "Admission," novelist Jean Hanff Korelitz tells the story of a college-admissions officer who hides from life under a pile of freshman applications.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Admission"

by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Grand Central Publishing, 452 pp., $24.99

If you are trapped in that particular purgatory reserved for parents with teenagers who are applying to college, you may have already heard of "Admission." It's written by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a New Jersey writer who read applications for Princeton's office of admissions during 2006 and '07.

I am in that purgatory, and I admit I picked up this book because I wanted a peek into the Ivy League application process. I did learn some things, but I also discovered a finely crafted, satisfying novel.

Portia Nathan is a 38-year-old Princeton admissions officer who has constructed a tidy life for herself. It's an exercise in self-defense — Portia never knew her father, she keeps her feminist mother at a distance, and a wrenching personal loss is buried in her past.

So she burrows into the thousands of applications that flow into Princeton each year from the nation's best and brightest — "Her life was a port in the storm, a craft in unpredictable waters. Her life, it occurred to her, was a careful refuge from life."

All this flies apart when Portia has an electrifying encounter with a teacher at a school she visits. Then her live-in partner encounters a serious complication of his own, and her 70-ish mother abruptly decides to harbor a 17-year-old pregnant girl.

As her life falls to pieces, Portia buries herself ever deeper into her work. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from a college-admissions essay; these are by turns arrogant, heartbreaking and hilarious.

But the best part of "Admission" is the author's take on contemporary adolescence. Portia "knew these kids intimately. She ... knew that they were soft-centered, tender beings wrapped in a terrified carapace, that even though they might appear rational and collected on paper, so focused that you wanted to marvel at their promise and maturity, they were lurching, turbulent muddles of conflict."

Wise words from an accomplished novelist.

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