Show of hands: How many of you could use a few hundred pages of fun, stress-free escape from current events?
I thought so. Me, too.
I have just the thing: Amy Poeppel’s debut novel, “Small Admissions.”
This is the comic story of Kate Pearson, a graduate student headed toward a life of academia. But when she has a breakdown triggered by a breakup with an icky French guy, she ends up in a depressed, unshowered funk. Her over-involved sister lands her an interview in the admissions department of an exclusive Manhattan private school, and after hilariously blowing that interview, she, shockingly, gets the job. Overnight, she returns to her conscientious, put-together self and enters the world of nutty parents and their variously challenged offspring.
Within Kate’s orbit are her sassy co-worker, her kind boss, her aforementioned sister and two college girlfriends. There are many “types” here, including her hippy-dippy academic parents, but Poeppel gives them all a fresh spin. And she is really, really funny.
During one admissions interview with Annie, a privileged know-it-all who’s going on about how much she loves Paris, Kate asks how old she is:
“ ‘My parents say I’m mature for my age.’ She adjusted her headband, which held her hair tightly off of her face. It wasn’t a good look for her because she had a big, protruding forehead that Kate found slightly grotesque. She wanted to recommend heavy bangs to cover it up, but oh well.”
Later, when she writes up the report on her interview, the signs of her growing exasperation with this hoity-toity culture are clear: “Annie Allsworth is a know-it-all, Neanderthal-headed brat. She is incapable of thinking outside of her own experience . . . I hated this girl and think she is probably a bad friend. Clearly a mean girl. And a fake. I don’t want her to come here, as I will likely shoot myself if I ever have to see her again.”
Poeppel herself worked in the admissions department of a New York City private school, so her perceptions and reactions to the process feel entirely authentic. She sees the ridiculous and the sad, and she makes us wonder why we put our kids and ourselves through this ordeal. (I recently went through the different but equally insane application process in the New York City public school system, so I appreciated seeing the other side.)
Both witty and wise, “Small Admissions” is a big-hearted, charming novel.
Julie Klam is the author, most recently, of “Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate, and Can’t Live Without.”
By Amy Poeppel
Atria. 358 pp. $26