April 01, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Who separates the exceptional kids from those who are merely ”excellent in all the ordinary ways” in the brutally competitive world of the Ivy League? Portia Nathan, the protagonist of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s compulsively readable new novel, is one of those gatekeepers, a 38-year-old Princeton admissions officer whose job it is to cull through them all — the fourth-?generation legacy, the dreamy musical savant, the ?impoverished immigrant with a gift for microbiology — and grant access to the very few.

At 449 pages, it’s a doorstop-worthy tome. But unlike the painful process of waiting for that acceptance (or, God forbid, rejection) letter, Admission seldom drags. Korelitz, a former part-time application reader for ?Princeton, knows her territory: Those who pick up the novel to gain a glimpse into the rarefied world of high-end academia won’t be disappointed. Nor will competitive parents and their college-bound offspring looking for an incidental do’s-and-don’ts cheat sheet. (Homemade cookies and hysterical phone calls? Probably not going to tip the balance on underwhelming test scores.)

Each chapter begins with a neat device: short excerpts from (fictional, we presume) application essays that range from wrenching to utterly inane. But Portia is the book’s true center. She’s a sharp, thoroughly fallible woman whose concern for every kid who comes across her desk conveniently masks the shambles of her own life. Her struggle to confront her willfully blocked past, deal with the collapse of a long-term relationship, and become a whole person, not merely a midwife of teenage ambition, is what ultimately makes Admission so compelling. It’s hardly flawless — Portia’s deep, dark ”secret” is actually pretty shallowly buried, and readers may find themselves frustrated at times by her emotional passivity — but as a character, she feels utterly real. And Admission is that rare thing in a novel: both juicy and literary, a genuinely smart read with a human, beating heart. A?

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