Caution: Reading Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Admissions could be hazardous to your work schedule, social life, and emotional state. In a single sitting (I dare you to walk away from this book), Moore’s debut novel takes readers inside the Hawthorne family as they navigate their way through the stressful, messy, and anxiety-driven world of college admissions. Set in Marin County, California, the stakes are high for 17-year-old Angela as she applies for early action to Harvard, her top-choice university and educational goal since her father photographed her wearing a Harvard sweatshirt at age two. At the beginning, Angela appears to have everything under control; it’s September and everything from her AP English essay to her Harvard application is due months into the future. She has time and is in control. But time eventually catches up with Angela, and she begins to buckle under the pressure. As with most family dynamics, Angela’s stress bleeds into and takes over family life, affecting each member differently. As the book unfolds, Moore’s central question becomes apparent: Is it worth it?
The stress of school admissions provides a rich and complex platform for social commentary about the hypercompetitive world in which many upper- and middle-class Americans exist. The details and pace of the Hawthorne family’s lives are both recognizable and ridiculous. Parents Gabe and Nora—a small-business owner and a real estate agent, respectively—seem unaware of the mounting pressure that their three children—Angela, 10-year-old Cecily, and 7-year-old Maya—face from school, friends, and extra-curricular activities. In fact, they pride themselves on raising steady children that can take all the stress and pressure in stride and still come out on top. But beneath their pride in Angela’s stellar academic record and Cecily’s top position in a competitive Irish dance team (Think how great that’s going to look on a college application!) rests their panic and fear that their youngest daughter cannot read at grade level. What did they do wrong? How can they fix it before it’s too late?
Beginning with Maya’s reading woes, Moore patiently and ingeniously shows the small fissures in the facade of this seemingly perfect family and reveals that each one of its members harbors fear, anxiety, and doubt hidden just beneath the expectations of high achievement. Through each chapter, Moore’s characters reveal the complexities of their individual lives; the decisions that each of them has to make; and the burdens of consequences they each must bear. Within this structure, Moore also plays subtly with the word “admissions.” While Angela’s college acceptance is the main storyline, each character has an admission that he or she believes would change the course of their lives and potentially place the family in jeopardy. As each character admits his or her hidden, truer self, Moore explores the power of secrets and the pressure to conform hidden below the surface of what appears perfect. But as Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, “murder will out.” When all is revealed with the Hawthorne family, readers can finally exhale, look up from the pages, and reflect on the larger, more important questions Moore’s book asks about how we live our lives, what we value from one another, and what it means to have a fruitful and significant life. While the stress of being wrapped up with the Hawthornes fades, these deeper questions linger. Even if the ending is concluded a little too neatly, Moore’s novel leaves a powerful imprint on its readers.
The Admissions: A Novel by Meg Mitchell Moore (Doubleday | 9780385540049 | August 18, 2015)