The Admissions brilliantly captures the frazzled pressure cooker of modern life as a seemingly perfect family comes undone by a few desperate measures, long-buried secret —and college applications!
The Hawthorne family has it all. Great jobs, a beautiful house in one of the most affluent areas of Northern California, and three charming kids whose sunny futures are all but assured. And then comes their eldest daughter’s senior year of high school . . .
Firstborn Angela Hawthorne is a straight-A student and star athlete, with extracurricular activities coming out of her ears and a college application that’s not going to write itself. She’s set her sights on Harvard, her father’s alma mater, and like a dog with a chew toy, Angela won’t let up until she’s basking in crimson-colored glory. Except her class rank as valedictorian is under attack, she’s suddenly losing her edge at cross-country, and she can’t help but daydream about a cute baseball player. Of course Angela knows the time put into her schoolgirl crush would be better spent coming up with a subject for her English term paper—which, along with her college essay, has a rapidly approaching deadline.
Angela’s mother, Nora, is similarly stretched to the limit, juggling parent-teacher meetings, carpool, and a real estate career where she caters to the mega-rich and super-picky buyers and sellers of the Bay Area. The youngest daughter, second-grader Maya, still can’t read; the middle child, Cecily, is no longer the happy-go-lucky kid she once was; and their dad, Gabe, seems oblivious to the mounting pressures at home because a devastating secret of his own might be exposed. A few ill-advised moves put the Hawthorne family on a collision course that’s equal parts achingly real and delightfully screwball—and they learn that whatever it cost to get their lucky lives it may cost far more to keep them.
Sharp, topical, and wildly entertaining, The Admissions shows that if you pull at a loose thread, even the sturdiest lives start to unravel at the seams of high achievement.
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MEG MITCHELL MOORE is the author of the novels The Arrivals and So Far Away. She worked for several years as a journalist for a variety of publications. She lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts, with her husband and three daughters.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Nora was trying not to worry. But she’d been a mother for nearly eighteen years now. She was going to worry.
It was a beautiful early-winter day in the Bay Area, which meant that it was sixty-five degrees and sunny, or would be until the fog rolled in later in the afternoon. No need for so much as a mitten. Christmas was nine days away.
She was reaching for her cell when the home phone rang.
Nobody ever called the home number. She’d threatened to have it disconnected so many times that it was now a standing joke in the Hawthorne family. Because she never had time to do anything she threatened to do, until now.
Yes. Her hand shaking as she cradled the receiver. A man’s voice, unfamiliar.
Nora hadn’t thought her heart could climb any farther up her throat than it had in recent weeks. But it could, it turned out, it could.
When Nora and her sister, Marianne, were young, growing up in Narragansett, Rhode Island, they used to play a game. One of them would say to the other: A genie grants you three wishes. What would you wish for?
They would say things like: I wish all the appliances in the house would turn to chocolate. Or: I wish I could have the gift of flight for twenty-four hours. Or: I wish we had pizza for dinner every night for three weeks. When they got older, they might say: I wish Jennifer Johnson would get a really bad perm that lasted for the rest of the school year. Or: I wish my breasts would grow (Nora) or stop growing (Marianne).
My name is Sergeant Stephen Campbell, California State Highway Patrol.
Stephen. Such an ordinary name, Nora would think later, for such an extraordinary phone call.
Three wishes, Genie, rapid-fire.
One. Say what you have to say, quickly.
Two. Tell me it’s going to be okay.
Three. Let me go back to the beginning and start over.
Mrs. Hawthorne. I’m in the security office at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Do you know how to get here, Mrs. Hawthorne?
She couldn’t say another thing. The room was whirling. She sat down on one of the kitchen stools.
Listen carefully, please. I’m going to tell you how to get here, and I want you to come right away. Do you understand me? We’re on the south side of the bridge. From where you are you have to cross the bridge to get to us.
She swallowed, tried to breathe. She watched a hand that didn’t seem like hers grasp at the edge of the counter. She watched the fingers try and fail to grip the edge. There was a sharp sound all around her, a high-pitched noise three octaves beyond glass breaking.
Mmmmmmph. The only sound she could manage.
Later Nora would figure that it all started with her job. If she hadn’t been a working mother. If the situation with the Watkins home hadn’t happened, and then the horror show at the Millers’ house. If she’d been more available, more aware. If she’d been better. If if if.
Three months earlier . . .
In the front of the house the rest of the family went about their business. It was early September, a shade past Labor Day. If Angela Hawthorne had to put the situation into words that her AP English teacher, Ms. Simmons, would appreciate, she might say that the moon was picking its way across the sky. The school year was still a virgin: barely touched, unsullied.
Above Angela’s desk, tacked to the colossal bulletin board, was a calendar. Circled with a red marker snatched from Maya’s room (seven-year-olds had a lot of markers) was the date. November first, fewer than eight weeks away. Her mother had added the rest for Angela with a black ballpoint in her neat, Catholic-girl-school hand, using exactly the words on the website: deadline for all early-action application materials.
Eight weeks. Seven and a half, really. So much to do. Five AP classes this year: European History. English Literature and Composition. Chemistry. Statistics. Studio Art. (“Studio Art can be an AP class?” her father had asked. “That seems bogus.” Angela, in tacit agreement, said nothing.)
The battle for class rank was a bloody one. Its victims were laid out all across the campus of Oakville High and across much of Marin County. Figuratively, of course. Ms. Simmons might appreciate that metaphor. Sammy Marshall, felled by an ill-timed bout of mono the previous spring. (“Not his fault,” said Angela’s mother. “The poor thing.” Was she smiling when she said that?) Porter Webb, the school’s foremost scholar-athlete, already being scouted by the minors. Lots of time on the baseball diamond. (“Too much athlete, not enough scholar,” said Angela’s father ruefully, though it seemed to Angela that part of the rue was manufactured.)
At the moment Angela was first. Valedictorian. But the wolves were nipping at her heels. (Did this count as a cliché?)
The wolves were snapping at her feet. Better? Better.
One of the wolves was Maria Ortiz, poetess extraordinaire, already published in several journals, only some of them obscure, fluent in four languages. (Angela’s father: “Technically, are we counting the Spanish as a foreign language? Because she did grow up speaking it at home . . .”) Henrietta Faulkner (no relation, though if you didn’t ask, Henrietta didn’t offer), Angela’s erstwhile best friend. Erstwhile. SAT word.
Angela, are the class rankings out yet?
Ask Angela. Angela will know the answer. Angela knows everything. Angela, did you do your homework?
Angela, did you practice?
And already, in the first week of school, a paper due in AP English Lit, as though the two novels Angela read in August for summer course work weren’t enough. It didn’t seem fair. “But I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all,” said Cecily over dinner—an aphorism she’d picked up from The Princess Bride, which she’d spent countless hours of the summer watching with her best friend, Pinkie. At ten years old, Cecily and Pinkie seemed to have an unlimited supply of leisure time with which to watch movies and ride scooters and twist each other’s hair into unnatural shapes to see how long they held.
Where was Angela’s leisure time? Gone, vanished. Taken from her in the night by an invisible thief. Wait, a thief couldn’t actually be invisible.
Stolen in the night by an unknown assailant. Corny. Overwritten. And assailants didn’t necessarily steal, they might just attack.
Purloined. Better. Simple and elegant. SAT word.
Or, more likely, if memory served, Angela’s free time had never truly existed. Perhaps, eons ago, when she was an infant, reclining in the Moses basket that her mother kept in the attic, the only remaining relic of Angela’s and Cecily’s and Maya’s babyhoods. Maybe then Angela had had leisure time, though a foggy memory persisted of a swinging ball of red and black and white, something she was meant to study and perhaps learn from. “I’m saving it,” said Angela’s mother (about the Moses basket). “For one of you. For when you have your own.” And Angela nodded, absorbing this sentiment, while in truth she couldn’t imagine ever marrying or becoming a mother. Where, on earth, would she find the time?
They were expected to read all of Beloved and write a paper on its central theme. By tomorrow. Angela hadn’t begun the book yet, never mind the paper. Cross-country practice after school, the first meet only two weeks away, six-by-one-mile repeats through the woods and over the river.
Over the river and through the woods, to grandmother’s house . . . Angela’s only living grandmother was her mother’s mother; she lived in Rhode Island, nowhere accessible by horse-drawn sleigh. (Was anywhere?) Eight thirty. The fatigue was pulling at her eyelids. (Good? The fatigue was like a blanket . . . No. Too much. Pulling at the eyelids was better.) Again Angela looked at the calendar: November first. Not so long now, not so long.
She never had before, hadn’t wanted to, hadn’t needed to, though she kept them at the ready. They all did—for emergencies, or not, as the case may be. Angela had gotten hers from Henrietta Faulkner, who had gotten them God-knows-where. A harmless little study aid, no big deal. A few of them secreted inside an Advil bottle, the bottle tucked inside her desk drawer, behind the pencil sharpener, the old iPod, no longer working, long since replaced, the odd collection of shoelaces.
Angela pulled out the bottle and shook the capsule out into her hand. Five milligrams, not so much. Other kids used more. Lots more. Five was nothing, a baby dose. A warm-up, an appetizer.
She reached for the glass of water at the edge of her desk. Hydration was super-important after a workout like the one they’d had today. Were the varsity cross-country teams at Novato and Redwood and all across the county working as hard as they were, as hard as the mighty Warriors? It was difficult to say. They would find out when they went head to head in November, at the regional meet. Foot to foot.
She lifted the glass, drank. The capsule was so small she scarcely noticed it going down. It was a blip, a hiccup.
She waited. Nothing. She waited some more. And more. And longer. There it was. Her head cleared. It all faded to the background: the
screech-scritch of Cecily’s bow across the strings (“Practice makes perfect,” Cecily said cheerfully, though there was little evidence that Angela could find to confirm the veracity of that statement, at least in Cecily’s case. Although those same words had been repeated to Angela ad nauseam for the past seventeen years), the sounds of the television, the neighbor’s dog barking at the back door to be let in or out.
There it was. Tunnel focus, that’s what they called it. And for good reason. Angela Hawthorne, valedictorian, was staring down a tunnel, no stopping, no sleep until Cambridge.
You get there, and then you can rest. Then you can rest.
But not yet, not now. Now she would work until it was done, and then she would sleep under a crimson moon.
Do you know I thought about seeing a therapist? There: I said it. I haven’t told a single soul, not even Gabe. Don’t tell Mom, okay? Seriously.
I was going to go because of stress and sleeplessness. I thought, what have I got to lose?
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