Small Admissions: Amy Poeppel
Genre: (Women’s) Fiction
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Hufflepuff
Kate’s life was going perfectly well until her perfect, dreamy French boyfriend dumped her. Cue a year of living on the couch and crashing with her sister, Angela. And Angela has had enough.
When her sister sets Kate up with a job interview at the prestigious Hudson Day School, Kate is certain that she’ll fail. However, she gets the job in the admissions department, and is suddenly thrust back into the real world into a job that she knows nothing about, interviewing all sorts of kids she knows nothing about: spoiled, inappropriate, And as she works to get through the year, her sister and college friends are working tirelessly behind her back to make sure that this time, she stays afloat. But does Kate really need to depend on them like a lost puppy? Or do her friends need more help than she does?
Story time! As a K-12 private school student, I’m not unfamiliar with school admissions offices. The scariest moment of my adolescence was probably when I was going to a summer camp that took place at a secondary school (high school) that I wanted to go to. I was currently attending a different school that I wasn’t fond of, but my parents didn’t want me to change schools again. But I was defiant. One summer, I found a chance to sneak away from the group and schedule a meeting with one of the admissions officers. It would be schedules for 10:30 the next day. That morning, my stomach was in knots trying to go over the details. Once 10:30 came, we had a semi informational interview, and although my chances were basically shot (they didn’t typically accept incoming seniors), I was pretty darn proud with myself.
The rest of the day, I was on a high. I did something AWESOME without my parents knowing. I handled something like an adult. I got after something I wanted. I was capable and competent! And maybe I’d even work there as an adult! That happened to be my last day of camp ever, and it was a super memorable one. So I sort of know how our MC feels about life.
Have you ever taken a blow and struggled to get going again? Kate Pearson knows your struggle, and so do her friends. Told through text, various POVs, emails, and documents, it is the story of one woman’s struggle to get back on her feet and of the people who try and help her and perhaps worry a little too much. Best of all, there are quirky characters. Right?
Maybe. The word “quirky” is one that gives me pause when going into a book. The thin line between not enough and over-the-top is very easy to overstep. It’s why I don’t like a lot of modern sitcoms. For me, there’s got to be realism. They have to be people. Poeppel is guilty of overstepping sometimes. Kate’s parents, professors, are completely over-the-top and academic in everything they do. Kate’s former coworker Sherman talks mainly in Shakespearean language–who does that? Robert’s French dialect is actually written out, which is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Nor was I impressed by Kate’s behavior near the beginning. I don’t find that complaining to potential students about your ex or writing rude notes about a girl just because she is wealthy is funny, but immature and unprofessional. For those reasons, she comes across as your typical lead in a romantic comedy–ditzy, unorganized, and immature, and those are her basic traits. Oddly, she’s one of the least developed characters in the novel. We couldn’t learn more about her, why? She’s clearly intelligent, as she used to want to be an archaeologist, and has had papers published.
However, it’s not just Kate’s story. Her friends and sister are both working to get her back on her feet, even though she’s doing pretty well. Meanwhile, Angela wants to get her family off the ground, Chloe is trying to come to grips with her cousin who supposedly treated Kate badly, and Vicki just wants to do her own thing. This involves some going behind each others’ backs. Those “girl drama” parts turned me off a little. I felt the story was stronger when they got along, and working for Kate whether Kate thinks that is for better or worse. Despite it being women’s fiction, though, I was surprised at the lack of likable females here. I can name three female characters I liked throughout the whole thing: potential student Annie, who is spoiled but kind, a nice change; Kate’s friend Chloe; and Mrs. Pearson (even though she was over the top). Meanwhile, Victoria is judgy and just awful, Angela is controlling, Silvia and Nancy are snobby and demanding, etc. I could have done without Nancy’s and Silvia’s POVs (parents of potential new students), but overall, I’d be lying if I said that most of these characters didn’t redeem themselves somewhat. Kate finds maturity, Angela learns to stop controlling, and even Vicki is an interesting twist on the mean girl in that she is in their friend group. Even Kate’s attitude and the lessons she learn come to help her in the end. Ultimately, they are real, flawed people. But I still didn’t like some of them, and I thought the forgiveness ran a little heavy near the end.
The worldbuilding itself was done pretty well. As a lifelong private school student I was intrigued by the premise of working in an admissions office…even though I couldn’t see myself ever attending Hudson and even disagreeing with some of their values. It was just interesting to hear about that lifestyle. But Kate meets some great people…sassy Maureen, Henry, the director (who is gay but not a stereotype, phew!) and learns to get back on her feet surprisingly quickly. I liked how she got to relate to a few other students whose stories we follow as Kate tried to prove herself. Dating, too, takes a backseat, though I enjoyed the banter between Chloe and George. Even Robert, Kate’s ex, wasn’t unlikable, as shown when they are unraveling details about their failed relationship. Rather, Kate’s story shifts to focus on a couple of new families and kids who we get to know well. And sure, the plot suffers just a touch because of it. I probably would have liked to hear just a little more about Kate and Jonathan’s relationship other than what was said through emails, or about Kate meeting Angela’s friend Nancy, whose son is applying to the school; the differing personalities could have made for something interesting. On the other hand, I was glad that the romance didn’t take over the important stuff, and that there wasn’t more drama through the inclusion of Nancy meeting Kate. So this worked, and didn’t at once. I’d even argue that skimming some of these scenes made the book move along faster and less likely to dwindle on little details.
This book does take a creative risk though: some important scenes are glossed over in favor of mentioning them in passing or through emails. It’s a slice-of-life story. This disjointed flow of the story doesn’t not work, though. I think that the “mentioned scenes” that were skipped over would have been the ones that bored me, like a cookie party, individual dates, and meetings, so I was okay with it.
Finally I do want to talk about the climactic action, because I’m not sure how well it works…though it could. Poeppel seems to be inspired by trends, and I don’t necessarily mean literary ones. I also don’t love how it was chalked up to mental illness and seemed a bit glamorized. I can’t give anything away here, but this is something readers should decide for themselves. However, Kate wraps up things nicely with the skills she’s been taught, and I can’t say that readers won’t be satisfied.
This novel could have been made better with more likable characters and by going a little more in depth. And I really wanted to hear a little more about Kate. Despite its flaws, though, Small Admissions is an entertaining, fluffy, character-based adventure that I think will appeal to many people wanting a new and different life for themselves. It adds interest with how it tells the story of a group rather than one character. This is an odd novel because the positives and negatives tend to balance each other out (the parents are over-the-top, for example, but we don’t see much of them; we don’t hear about some events as much as we should but they may not have been relevant anyway, etc), and overall it made for a nice read.
Book Club Questions (spoilers)
- Kate is struggling at first….she won’t get off the couch, she badmouths her ex to prospective students, she can be ditzy. She reminds me of a rom-com heroine, as stated in my review. Does Kate remind you of any other rom-com characters? Which ones? How is her story similar or different? Retell her story in the form of a hit romantic comedy movie.
- Which characters helped or hindered Kate’s development? Do you feel that is important to have someone guide you, or would you rather be left to your own devices? Do you think Angela and Vicki had good motives?
- Whether in an admissions office, in customer service, or even as next-door neighbors, we have all been in situations where we’ve had to deal with difficult people. Describe a time where you’ve had an intrapersonal challenge and what you got from the experience. Were you successful?
- Consider the kids that Kate meets: Dillon, Claudia, Annie, and Gus. Invent futures for them, or imagine where they’ll go. How will their upbringing affect their lives? Who won’t be successful? How did Kate’s parents affect her upbringing?
- Vicki/Victoria has a strong appreciation of success to a fault. To you, what is success? Try to name it in 3 adjectives. What is success to Vicki? Do you think that Vicki thinks she is successful? How does our perception of success influence our relationships?
- If your club has time, write one of the following scenes that isn’t elaborated on in the novel:
-The cookie exchange
-Kate and Jonathan’s first date
-Vicki and Robert’s breakup
-Kate’s first week on the job