Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Review: Admission by Julie Buxbaum

Applying to college is stressful. It's stressful for students but it's also stressful for parents. I've been through it not only for myself, but also three times now as a parent. And I think it may be harder as a parent. Of course every school is going to want your amazing child, right? Well, no. And it is incredibly painful to see a college tell your child that they regret...blah, blah, blah. (I still make spitting noises whenever the name of one particular institution is mentioned even though the kid in question is long since over the hurt of the denial.) So those of us privileged enough to have the time and money to do so try to do whatever we can to help our child look attractive to the college of their choice. We harangue them about their grades. We drive them to and from countless extracurricular activities. We lecture them on their social media presence. We take them on college visits. We hire tutors or outside college counselors. We enroll them in SAT/ACT prep classes. It's a lot. But we want them to have their choice of colleges. So I suppose that it isn't really surprising to find out that some parents crossed a legal line to make sure their children got into the college of their choice, as we all saw during the 2019 college admissions scandal. We watched as the highest profile parents pled guilty, lost professional opportunities, were pilloried in the press and public opinion, and ultimately served time. But did we ever wonder at the effect on the children at the base of the scandal beyond wondering how much they knew? Although the parents were ostensibly acting in their interests, the impact on the kids and their lives has been largely ignored. This unexplored angle is what Julie Buxbaum has created in her ripped from the headlines novel, Admission.

Chloe Berringer has a pretty great life. She's the daughter of privilege. She goes to an elite private school. Her mother is Joy Fields, a B-list actress. She doesn't totally fit in at school but she has a fabulous best friend, Shola, who is closer to her than her own sister. She's just been accepted at her dream college, the school she never thought she'd get into in a million years. And the guy friend she's been crushing on forever might just be showing signs of finally being interested. Sure, she isn't a high achiever or have a driving passion or know where she wants to be in five years or what she wants to be when she grows up. But those are minor and her life, on the whole, is truly pretty great. But that whole life changes early one morning when she opens the door to the FBI who are there to arrest her mother for her role in a college admissions scandal.

Chapters alternate between "Now" and "Then," or the door opening and moving forward from that moment versus the school year leading up to the fateful door opening. Both pieces are told in the first person by Chloe allowing the reader to see both her struggles with the admissions process itself and how her parents involvement in the scandal makes her feel about herself. Chloe isn't a stellar student but she's decent. Her standardized test scores are not good and no amount of tutoring has helped her. Her first attempt at a personal essay is dismal. Her friends appear to be sailing through the college admissions process while she hits every hurdle an otherwise wealthy, white girl can hit. The stress, anxiety, and fear accompanying the whole process is incredibly true to reality and made me sad to read about (thank heavens I'm done getting kids through this). The process stress, anxiety, and fear are nothing to the stress, anxiety, and shame that she feels once the scam becomes public though and she has to do some hard thinking about her own culpability and wonder if she practiced willful blindness and therefore deserves some of the public scorn and vitriol directed her way. It gets even harder as she examines the whole situation from the perspective of her best friend. Although they are incredibly close, Shola serves as a foil to Chloe in many ways. She is an outstanding student, black, and a scholarship student at their school. Her family does not have the financial means to fund even the additional legal "leg-ups" that everyone else at the school uses as a matter of course but Chloe still envies Shola without understanding all of the privilege she, Chloe, takes for granted.

As a character, Chloe is complex and contradictory. She is a typical teenager, entitled and a bundle of nerves, a compassionate kid and a whiny, thoughtless brat. Sometimes she can be all of these within the space of a few sentences. The reader alternates between sympathizing with her and thinking, "really? You didn't stop to question any of the odd or off or truly questionable things you were being asked to do?" The way that Buxbaum shows the daily deceptions in this Hollywood family, the importance of appearances, and the way that this has seeped into not only Chloe's character make-up but is also present in the people surrounding her in life, school, and beyond, is quite illustrative. As this premise is clearly pulled from current events, it would be impossible not to see the similarities with the real life college admissions scandal. Mom Joy and the situation itself are large parts Lori Loughlin mixed with small bits of Felicity Huffman but Chloe is her own person, grappling with everything in ways that none of the actual kids seem to have done, at least not in public. Some of what Chloe learns or acknowledges is a little heavy handed at times, although perhaps the obviousness of certain lessons are to reinforce the whole oblivious teenager thing. As for the secondary characters, Chloe tells the reader about their fabulousness and compares herself to them but they are clearly meant just to show aspects of Chloe's personality rather than to be fully fleshed out characters on their own. I do have one rather specialized nit pick as well but most people are never going to notice it. There were some clunky bits and a little too much didacticism, but over all, this was an interesting exercise in looking at privilege, entitlement, expectations, and hard learned lessons. If you want to think some more about the college admissions scandal, give this novel a try.

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