Portia Nathan is an admissions officer at Princeton. She is in her late 30s and is pretty much consumed by her career. She has a stilted, yet comfortable personal life with a long-term partner and one close female friend, drawn from her professional circle. Her relationship with her mother is tense, but more uncomfortable than hostile. But this admissions cycle shakes up Portia’s life, as she is forced to confront her own repressed feelings about a past decision she has kept secret for two decades.
This wasn’t a perfect book by any means, but I picked it up because I was curious to read something which focused on university administration (I work in university administration, though not in admissions). And all the information about Ivy League admissions is probably my favorite part of this book. Although it tended to be infodump-y in parts, I was genuinely curious to know about the admissions process, so I read these parts pretty attentively. I also could really relate to Portia’s feelings about her applicants. I love college students. I love that they come to us full of potential with dreams and hopes of making a real difference in the world. I love that I play some tiny role in helping them reach their dreams and potential. So I get Portia’s passion for her career and really enjoyed the parts where she pondered on her role in these student’s lives.
On the flip side, though, I had a very hard time connecting with Portia outside of her career. Portia is very wrapped up in her career, to the point that she neglects and ignores her personal life and her mental health, sinking into a deep depression after her partner leaves her. I had a really hard time with a major decision she makes at the end of the book, it was completely unethical, which made me unsympathetic to and disgusted with her, and it was a career-destroying move, something that seemed very out of character for the career-obsessed Portia.
I also thought the plot here of Portia confronting a repressed secret was pretty flat and unimpressive. I’d recommend this book if you are interested in college admissions, but if you are looking for a drama or a story with strong character development, I’d look elsewhere. There was potential for this story to do a lot more than it did, which made it a bit disappointing, but I leave it knowing a whole lot more about Ivy League admissions that I did when I started it.