NEW YORK — Just in time for the back-to-school season to reside in the “this is not a roman à clef” category comes “Admissions” (Warner Books), Nancy Lieberman’s first novel about the city’s notoriously selective process of private school admissions. But while the characters might not be based on real people, “Admissions,” like “The Nanny Diaries” and “The Devil Wears Prada” before it, is rooted in real-life experience.
“Three years ago, I was applying to middle schools for my daughter,” explains Lieberman at Nice Matin, a favorite breakfast spot among in-the-know Upper West Siders. “I was going through the process and finding it harrowing and hysterical at the same time. I just kept thinking ‘This is a novel.’”
“Admissions” follows the Dragers, a professional New York couple and their pleasantly normal daughter, Zoe, as they frantically apply to high schools with amusing names like “The Fancy Girls’ School,” “The Very Brainy Girls’ School” and “The Bucolic Campus School.” Though Lieberman, a former gallery owner and photography specialist for Phillips, had never written before, her experience as a parent in the private school system served as inspiration for many of the ripe-for-parody plotlines.
And she has seen it all — from parents promising to donate large sums of money to celebrities insisting on bodyguards for their children. Luckily, the same outrageousness that exists in real life comes through in the fictional telling. In the book, a fund-raising auction offers up Sunday brunch with George Stephanopoulos and an ice-skating birthday party with the New York Islanders for the right price. Meanwhile, the reality is that when Lieberman organized her daughter’s elementary school auction, Woody Allen, who had a child enrolled in the school, offered a walk-on part in one of his movies.
“Later that year, there was the whole Soon-Yi episode, so there was a real dilemma in the school as to what to do about that in the auction,” says Lieberman. “We left it in and somebody paid a lot of money for it, so the story had a happy ending.”
To glean information about the extraordinary lives of New York kids, Lieberman engaged in a favorite pastime: eavesdropping on the crosstown bus before and after school was in session. “I would hear two teenage boys discussing the pros and cons of a Gulfstream versus a Cessna or what’s the best way to get to the Hamptons over a holiday weekend — and they’re not talking about the Jitney,” she says. “The flip side is they’re all carrying these 30-pound backpacks and their lives are incredibly stressful and programmed.”
Lieberman is at work on her second book, a mystery about the photography world. Though she’s currently less involved with her daughter’s school, a nonfiction account of the admissions process was never an option. As she says, “I’d never have lunch in this town again.”
— Jamie Rosen