Amy Poeppel’s debut novel, Small Admissions, should not be read while eating or drinking. Because you’ll likely choke as you laugh throughout this hilarious story. As the parental figures say at the end of the book, some people are flat, and some are bubbly. This goes for books too. And Small Admissions definitely fits in the sparkling variety.
Young Wellesley alum Kate Pearson ditches her anthropology graduate school plans to follow her sexy almost-fiancé, Robert, to Paris. Where he promptly dumps her. What follows is her return to her bosom (and meddling) friends and sister in New York City and her subsequent downward spiral spent mostly on the couch in her fifth floor walk-up sublet. She works as a disastrously ill-equipped dog walker, seemingly dragged through her depression as much by the dogs as by her heartbreak. Her drunken evenings and inability to function last until Kate’s sister, Angela, fortuitously meets Henry Bigley, the desperate admissions director at the elite private institution, Hudson Day School. The ensuing novel is a comedic patchwork of interwoven plot lines from multiple character perspectives that all converge beautifully. The novel offers glimpses into the bizarre worlds of New York City admissions, academic culture, unconventional families, close-knit friends, socialites, online dating for friends, and one very charming Parisian playboy.
Small Admissions abounds in laugh-out-loud scenarios, wisdom issuing from unlikely sources, a commentary on contemporary friendships and family, and likeable characters. In fact, the novel is so comedic, I could barely contain myself during many of the scenes. For example, during Kate’s job interview, she rambles at great length about many inappropriate topics – including nudity – in response to Henry Bigley’s prompt, “So tell me about yourself.”
After she lands the job, Kate exemplifies an independent woman who doesn’t need her friends for a makeover (despite their best efforts) but does it herself in keeping with a Wellesley graduate fashion – by doing her homework. In fact, her ascent out of her depression is practically an instructional self-help guide for anyone who might be stagnated in a funk. Kate’s viral energy inspires the reader as she transforms herself from a pajama-wearing depressive on the couch to a young organized professional entering the workforce for her new job. Although she soon discovers she’s overwhelmed, she veers into unknown duties and situations and grows to overcome her impostor syndrome with the support of her boss.
Kate is surrounded by a supportive family and well-meaning friends, but, as a psychiatrist character in the novel brilliantly points out, their efforts to help her as their project might very well result from their own egotism and personalities. Who among us is guiltless from trying to fix someone who might not desire our aid or wish us to meddle in their romantic affairs? Wisdom emanates from such quirky places as the liquor lady (who advises Kate to turn herself into the kind of person her job requires quickly) and her interviewees (with whom she discusses her relationship problems as hypothetical problems for the children to solve). Even the French playboy, Robert, has an uncannily insightful perspective. For example, in one instance he suggests that what we all need is a nice dinner with friends to defuse a tense or difficult situation, a simple, yet likely solution to most problems. And then at another time he says, “Life happens ze way life happens,” echoing not only European laid-back sensibilities but wisdom worthy of a philosopher. Poeppel portrays her characters as so likeable, she even manages to pull off making Robert lovable.
The way Poeppel unfolds the novel by allowing the reader to discover the bread crumbs of the characters and story is an exact demonstration of masterful writing and “showing” and not “telling.” One critique is the narrative was a little disjointed with the multiple character perspective and different plot lines leading me to some confusion in the beginning. However, the novel quickly becomes a page turner, and the narratives meld together in a brilliantly planned storyline. All of the players populating the book stay in character throughout. For example, Kate continually writes wickedly sarcastic notes on the interviewees, mirroring her spunky personality. Kate’s sister Angela seems to be on a mission to transform Kate into who Angela envisions Kate should be. Kate’s friends’ agendas remain true to their characters as well. My only wish for the book was that the characters’ alternate imaginary scenarios and inner fantasy worlds in early chapters continued throughout the novel.
If you need to get out of a reading rut and interact with flawed yet lovable characters who will take you to a world of young New York City professionals or just need some comic relief from a smart, engaging book, I highly recommend Amy Poeppel’s Small Admissions. The continual laughs the novel engenders seal the deal for me that we should all have more fun in life and not take everything (or ourselves) so seriously. Reading Small Admissions is definitely one step in that direction.