Parents of students aspiring to elite universities may want to wait to read Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel "Admission," about a Princeton admissions officer in crisis. Korelitz's depiction will reinforce their fear that getting into an Ivy League school takes far more than being an excellent student -- curing cancer might do it, so long as some other 17-year-old doesn't do it first.
Yes, Portia Nathan affirms, when confronted by an angry mother, kids can get a good education at a lot of colleges. But her world is the Ivies -- she went to Dartmouth -- and she knows that entering it is increasingly difficult.
An old-fashioned novelist in the best sense, Korelitz takes a subject of consuming contemporary interest and uses it to frame a portrait of a wonderfully complex character confronting the choices she's made and the damage she's done, mostly to herself.
Portia seems the model of a successful professional as she embarks on a fall recruiting trip to New England. At Deerfield, a traditional Princeton feeder, she fields questions from a roomful of eager overachievers. At the alternative Quest School, whose skeptical students are not convinced they need "to participate in this national hysteria about college admissions," she makes the case that if they want to change the world, a rigorous education can help.
Such scenes reveal Portia's commitment to her work, her affection for different sorts of young people and her desire to help them on their way. A boy named Jeremiah -- a brilliant misfit in a working-class family, largely self-educated until he got to Quest because his public school didn't know what to make of him -- is just the sort of student she prides herself on guiding toward Princeton.
The first cracks in Portia's facade appear when Quest teacher John Halsey mentions that he too attended Dartmouth and knew her boyfriend Tom. Her reaction makes it clear that something went very wrong with Tom, and when she falls into bed with John, there's a lot simmering under the surface of their lovemaking.
Back home, the cracks widen as Portia's partner, Mark, prepares a dinner party. Why are these two live-in companions so cautious around each other? Why is Portia so unhappy to hear that her mother, Susannah, has called?
Why, after the party is over, is Mark so unfairly critical of Portia's response to the hostility of a new colleague of his in the English department? What is "the barbed thing she had done a very long time ago" that makes Portia so reluctant to deal with any of this?
Korelitz wrote two legal thrillers before turning to mainstream fiction with "The White Rose," a shrewd and subtle novel of manners. Here, she makes good use of her genre apprenticeship, administering a series of shocks that send Portia into a tailspin while planting clues to the long-buried trauma that has scarred her life.
Mark leaves, after confessing that the hostile English professor is expecting his child. Susannah announces that she's taken in a pregnant teenager, promising to adopt the baby but in fact hoping that after it's born the new mother will decide to keep it.
Long before Portia numbly scans the 1990 birth dates on this year's applications, attentive readers will have figured out that she got pregnant in college and ever since has been tortured by the decision she made. We have to wait until very near the story's end to learn what she did, but that's because the author wants us to know Portia better so we can understand her actions.
Sensitively excavating Portia's personal history, Korelitz stirs compassion for this caring, self-doubting woman. She populates the book with three-dimensional characters who spotlight the obstacles thrown in Portia's path and the helping hands she's been unable to grasp.
After she reconnects with John and Jeremiah when they visit Princeton, Portia is ready to face the primal source of shame and anguish that has driven her for years. She takes a rule-breaking step to atone for this "old, old transgression" and though the consequences are as severe as she expected, they're also liberating.
Portia doesn't get a happy ending, but she gets something that might be better: a future free from the weight of the past -- or at least as free as any- one can be in the complicated, challenging society Korelitz thoughtfully examines.
Well-written, well-plotted and extremely satisfying, "Admission" marks another step forward for a writer whose accomplishments grow more impressive with each book.
Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times