Authors: Jean Hanff Korelitz
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are
used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Jean Hanff Korelitz
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced,
distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written
permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: April 2009
Lines from “Dartmouth Undying” reprinted with permission of Dartmouth College. Copyright 1931 Trustees of Dartmouth College.
Two verses from “The Applicant” from Ariel by Sylvia Plath. Copyright © 1963 used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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Chapter One: The Good News of Princeton
Chapter Three: The Worst Kind of Failure
Chapter Five: Chicken Marbella
Chapter Eight: Fictions of Lives
Chapter Nine: An Actor Prepares
Chapter Ten: The Knack for Isolation
Chapter Eleven: This Concerns You
Chapter Twelve: The Dreaded Thing, the Average Man
Chapter Thirteen: Inside the Box
Chapter Fourteen: Aren’t There Things to Talk About?
Chapter Fifteen: A Few Details
Chapter Seventeen: Content to Be Led
Chapter Eighteen: I’m OK, You’re OK
Chapter Nineteen: The Land of the WASP
Chapter Twenty: Fair Is Kind of an Imprecise Concept
Chapter Twenty-one: Once There Was and Was Not
Part III: Vox Clamantis in Deserto
Chapter Twenty-two: A Thing for Jewish Girls
Chapter Twenty-three: The Low Door in the Wall
Chapter Twenty-four: The Destination Board
Chapter Twenty-five: I’m Not Here Now
Chapter Twenty-six: Who Among Us Has Died?
Chapter Twenty-seven: Short Stories
Chapter Twenty-eight: The Amazing and the Extraordinary
Chapter Twenty-nine: A Highly Unusual Applicant
Chapter Thirty: A for Admission
Chapter Thirty-one: 99 Percent Pure
Chapter Thirty-two: Prometheus Unbound
Chapter Thirty-three: A Sense of Being Drawn In
The White Rose
The Sabbathday River
A Jury of Her Peers
For Ann and Burt Korelitz
When I think of Princeton I think of many images:
ivy-covered buildings, students arguing philosophy in the dining hall,
shadows in the Yard. It is truly a great privilege to attend
a school like Princeton.
he flight from Newark to Hartford took no more than fifty-eight minutes, but she still managed to get her heart broken three
times. This was a feat at once pathetic and, bizarrely, something of an underachievement, Portia thought, making a painful
note on the reader’s card of an academically unadmittable Rhode Island girl and shoving the folder back into her bag. Any
of her colleagues, she thought ruefully, might have had their hearts broken by twice as many applicants in the same amount
In the real world, of course, Portia was no slower a reader than anyone else. She could fully scan
The New York Times
while waiting in line for her habitual (and necessary) Americano at Small World Coffee, half a block from the FitzRandolph
Gate of Princeton University. She had even, once, completed Vikram Seth’s
A Suitable Boy
during a weeklong visit to her mother in Vermont (when, admittedly, the whole point had been to evade Susannah, especially
when she wanted to talk). Fifteen hundred pages in seven days—not too shabby. But she was well aware of her reputation as
the slowest reader in Princeton’s Office of Admission (singular,
—not plural), and she probably deserved it. With an application open before her, Portia could almost feel herself decelerate,
parsing the sentences and correcting the grammar, fixing the spelling, rereading to make sure she at least knew what they’d
managed to say, if not what they’d meant to say, even as she took the temperature of her anxiety at falling behind, because
she couldn’t stop herself from lingering, lingering, lingering… on the kids.
She wasn’t supposed to think of them as kids, she knew that. Few of them sounded like kids, they were trying so hard not to
be young. They were ventriloquizing the attorneys they thought they wanted to be, or the neuroscientists, or the statesmen.
They were trying to sound as though they already worked at Morgan Stanley, or toiled at a feeding station in Darfur, or were
due in surgery. But so often the newness of them, the flux of their emerging selves, would poke through the essays or the
recommendations, stray references to how Jimmy had grown since his difficult freshman year or Jimmy’s own regrettable use
of the word
. Their confidence was sometimes so hollow, it practically echoed off the page. They were all so young, even the ones who
had already seen so much.
In this batch, on this brief flight, already there had been a wizened seventeen-year-old who lived with her younger brother
in an apartment in South Boston, their parents back home in Taiwan. She wrote of the microwavable meals she prepared for her
bisected family and the bureaucracy she had learned to manipulate for herself, the weekly phone calls from Mom, who had never
been able to attend a parent-teacher conference, being unable to speak English and, incidentally, on the other side of the
planet, but wasn’t it worth it? Because she had six AP scores of 5 and four more exams still to be taken? Because she was
first in her class of four hundred, with a very realistic chance of getting into a first-tier college and achieving her dream
of becoming a doctor? And the boy from Holyoke whose mother had left her two oldest children to cross the border for her day
job in a medical supply factory and her night job at Wendy’s, whose father was described as “Unknown/No Information,” who
was a physics whiz and captain of the soccer team and All-State, who was applying not just for admission to Princeton, but
for admission to America. And this last, from a girl in Greenwich, Connecticut, who was smart enough to know that she wasn’t
smart enough, only just very, very smart, and wrote with preemptive defeat about her hospital internship and the inspiration
of her older brother, who had survived childhood cancer to attend law school. Smart enough to know about, or at least imagine,
the ones she would be compared with, who had been handed so much less than she, and done so much more with what they had,
while the children of privilege were penalized for having been fortunately born, comfortably raised, and excellent in all
of the ordinary ways. Sometimes those were the ones who got to Portia most of all.
It was a sparsely occupied flight, of course; if it hadn’t been, if there were, for example, a businessman or grandmother
or—worst of all—high school–age kid within sight of her seat, she would never have extracted from her bag and opened, and
then studied, the contents of these very private, very freighted files. Instinctively, Portia closed the folders whenever
the single, tight-lipped attendant cruised the aisle, glancing at people’s laps. She dropped her white plastic cup of tepid
coffee into the attendant’s proffered garbage bag or made the appropriate noises when he said they were ten minutes from Bradley,
holding her place with a finger as she held the folders shut. This was the unwritten code of her profession and Portia’s own
inclination for secrecy, neither one more than the other, really, as if the numbers, letters, declarations, and aspirations
within each file outweighed the secrets of governments or espionage cells—which, to the teenagers they represented, they surely
did. Outside the window, beyond the ridge of the descending wing, the autumn trees of New England sharpened: electric red-and-yellow
branches and spiky green pines divided by the highway. This trip, late in the season for its kind, would be her final airing
before the approaching cataclysm of paperwork. In this post–Early Decision era, there were no longer any foothills in Princeton’s
admissions calendar; there was only flat land, then Everest, and the twenty orange folders in her bag were merely the first-from-the-gate
forerunners of the onslaught to come. When that bell curve hit its apex in a month’s time, she and her co-workers would simply
disappear into their offices or their homes, emerging only sporadically until midwinter, before finally crawling out the other
side, pale and gasping from beneath all that aspiration, all that desperation, in April.
But today, this brilliant New England day, would be calm seas before the storm. Today, Portia would preach the good news of
Princeton to the preemptively converted, and with a glad heart, because at long last she was here in New England and shot
of the West Coast, in whose intense, teeming schools she had toiled for the past five years. She had been waiting for the
New England district to open up, waiting for her colleague Rand (actually Randolph) Cumming to vacate the helm, something
he had shown no inclination to do. Rand had never once set foot beyond the charmed circle of venerated and wealthy educational
institutions, not since the day his parents dropped him off at a certain tradition-draped boarding school (as, Portia liked
to imagine, a howling babe, “untimely ripped” from his mother’s breast). In due course, he had swanned off to Princeton (BA)
and Yale (JD) and then, as if the whole notion of practicing law had been merely a whim, straight back to the (literally)
ivy-covered walls of his alma mater’s Office of Admission, where he spent the next two decades tending the very prep school
garden from which he had sprung and becoming, more or less, the very personification of what most people imagined an Ivy League
admissions officer to be: bow-tied, well groomed, class ringed, and always ready to be of service to an old classmate or a
classmate’s chum, whose fine young son was a rising senior with a letter in squash and a winning way with a sailboat.