Portia Nathan is an admission officer at Princeton. She lives with her long time boyfriend, Mark, an English professor, and she's just been given the plum New England recruiting territory for the University. As the application season starts, Portia visits schools, including a new experimental school in New Hampshire where she finds a group of students, and one in particular, who challenge and interest her more than any others through the years. John, the head teacher at the school causes her pangs too; he's a former classmate from Dartmouth who remembers her but whom she does not remember. Really what she's most frightened about is how his appearance reminds her of her college boyfriend and the past she thought she'd buried from all conscious thought. When she returns home and immerses herself back in her regular life with Mark and the mountains of applications to which she must give thoughtful consideration, suddenly everything in her life seems to start slowly imploding, forcing her to face the past and her decisions.
The novel is balanced between the story of admitting students, and how that process works, and the admission she must make to herself, about the lingering effect of the past on all the decisions she has made ever since. Portia is given ample opportunities to explain the way that an admissions committee works and thinks, during her school visits, at a dinner party with a hostile colleague of Mark's, and in describing her own actions behind closed doors. She feels some intellectual inferiority because of the lack of a degree aimed specifically at her job and qualifications. She describes the unavoidable, and unfortunately common, occurrence of rejecting well-qualified prospective students. She gets personally involved in certain kids' applications, fighting for their admittance in committee. And she makes the overwhelming stress of reading through so many heartfelt applications in such a short amount of time as well as ignoring or denying the very cracks in her own personal life because she is so consumed by applications very understandable and immediate to the reader.
Each chapter starts with an application excerpt as an epigraph. These are clever and sound very much as if they could have been culled from actual applications. Shifting between the here and now of her present and her past, Portia is just treading water, feeling completely unmoored, for most of the story. Her counterculture childhood and unusual mother formed her in ways that were perhaps expected: her rebellion had no choice but to turn towards the conventional and away from the unconventionality of her mother. The big revelation from her past is rather predictable and the huge coincidence that stems from it is a little tough to buy. But I had already gotten aggravated by a plot point that was beyond incorrect so I might have been a tad judgmental by then.
What chapped my hide so much, you ask? Portia ends up with a monogrammed shirt from a boy who accidentally hit her in the head with a lacrosse ball. She wants to find him but she can't because she didn't know that the larger middle letter in a monogram is actually the last initial. Well, yes. This would be true if the boy was a girl. The larger middle letter makes this a woman's monogram. Given that the boy is the offspring of a Boston Brahmin family, he would certainly not have had a girl's monogram on his oxford cloth shirt (and his family would certainly have known the difference). And men's monograms are done in name order with all letters the same size. This might seem petty but since it is given a full paragraph in the book as she searches for this boy based on the wrong last initial and it is the major reason for Portia not finding this knight in shining armor sooner than she does, it becomes too pivotal to be so badly incorrect. Little things matter, especially when they really aren't that little in the grand scheme of things. Despite my pique, I did appreciate Portia's growth and change as a character. The story was generally well paced although sometimes Portia's defense of her job went on a bit long. But as a mother going through the college application process two years in a row, I definitely appreciated her silent exhortation "Don't...make some terrible connection between who you are as a human being and whether or not you get in." (p. 219) Sound advice we could all stand to remember in so many areas of our lives.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.