where the writers are
The Contemporary Novel of Conformity

Mark Twain is amusing as he criticizes his fellow Americans for their corn pone opinions:  their conformity to prevailing public opinion. Jean Hanff Korelitz's novel Admission is full of such corn pone opinions but, unfortunately, is not amusing. The heroine Portia Nathan, an atheist Jew, spends the novel rebelling against her feminist mother by trying to be as mainstream as possible. She chooses to be a Ivy League admissions bureaucrat (Dartmouth and then Princeton) sounding like a Princeton press release for hundreds of pages telling us what is the title of Chapter One "The Good News of Princeton."

Portia is 37 but sounds like a 17 year old in full-blown rebellion against the sins of Mom whose name is Susannah. What has the mother done? Well, mom has been a campaigner:  campaigned for women and immigrants, early sex education, and subsidized housing, sanctuary for victims of male violence and of mandatory drug sentencing."  Mom raised her daughter in that hotbed of feminist sedition Northampton, Massachusettes. Mom was against fast food and fed her daughter only organic fruits and vegetables. The daughter at 37 still feels betrayed but has a hard time articulating why. Mom inherited money but lived cheaply--growing tomatoes, cheap vacations, handmade furniture-- and didn't give her money away. Portia can't get over and frets about for years  her mom having money but ignoring it.  Is that unAmerican--not spending money? Mom did spend her money on her daughter's Ivy League tuition. 

When Portia is 7th grade, she--tall, dark haired--sits down at the table of the popular girls and "two extremely strident and highly amused blond girls had sent her publicly packing." Mom castigates her for running after "that crowd," but Portia spends the novel running after "that crowd." Daughter rebels by choosing not a progressive college but the most conventional of Ivy League colleges--Dartmouth. More rebellion, she gorges on fast food. More rebellion is when a young WASP at Dartmouth hits her in the head with a lacrosse ball she falls immediately in love:  "She was (and how Susannah would have rage at this ...) very much like a reverse Cinderella looking for her Prince...." Dartmouth is fairly small, so she eventually finds her prince Tom and learns he's not just any old WASP but descended from one of the founders of Dartmouth and "has a thing for Jewish girls." Portia is Jewish.

Actually she's one of the most masochistic Jewish heroines in fiction. Of course, Tom dumps pregnant Portia at a cafe in Paris, taking off with a new WASP girlfriend. Undeterred our heroine refuses to have an abortion (her mother as an pro-abortion campaigner, of course), has the baby,  and gives it up leading to much more suffering. Back at Dartmouth she gets involved with an Englishman (more Anglo than even a WASP), starts working in admissions, and goes with him when he gets a professor's job at Princeton. Her English partner of 16 years abandons her on Thanksgiving Eve, dumping her for an Englishwoman.  The novel in many parts seems like an ode to conformist masochism.

Mother, of course, is portrayed as a stereotype:  the wacky feminist. The embarassing rebel you'd like to forget. The daughter tells us she even sells her Northampton home at a loss--as if it were totally unAmerican to sell a home for a loss.  The mother remains a stick figure stereotype to be beaten down throughout the novel. Mother does always have feminist friends--too many for the daughter has they spend vacations visiting them.  The daughter loves to make jokes at her mother's expense such as after the mother moves to Vermont: "Vermont, it seemed clear to Portia, was destined to become one great retirement complex for left seniors ...." The non-formist as the butt of the joke. Portia spends her life dominated by corn pone opinions, rejecting the nonconformist mother. Admissions is another novel dominated by corn pone opinons.