The Last Applicant – Competition for Places at a Private School Leads to Tragedy

New York City parents will quickly connect with the plot of Rebecca Hanover’s novel, The Last Applicant. 

Competition is fierce for kindergarten spots at Easton, Manhattan’s exclusive private school, the gateway, many believe, for eventual acceptance into Ivy League colleges. As admissions director, Audrey Singer is the gatekeeper, the final word on who gets in and who is shut out. It’s a responsibility Audrey takes seriously, but this year one prospective parent, Sarah Price, threatens to derail the process and throw Audrey’s personal life into turmoil.

Although Audrey holds a powerful job, she doesn’t travel in the same social circles as those occupied by Easton parents. Audrey is divorced from her first husband, Samuel, and their daughter, Hazel, 13, is an Easton student, something made possible because of the scholarship aid given to the children of school employees. Now married to Luke, a talented but struggling photographer, Audrey knows that their younger son, Calvin, 5, also will be able to attend Easton.

Rebecca Hanover (Photo Credit: Kathleen Sheffer)

The one Easton mother Audrey does connect with is her Columbia classmate, Caroline Chippendale Crane, “Chippie,” who comes from a “family richer than the Getty’s” and now runs her own cosmetics company, Quince. Hazel and Chippie’s daughter, Winslow, are best friends.

Audrey has been doing this job for so long that it’s become routine. She welcomes prospective parents at the beginning of the school tours that are led by current parents. She’s also present for the teas (really cocktail parties) held at the luxurious homes of Easton families. On these occasions, questions are invited, but very few parents are bold enough to ask one, fearful of how that query might be interpreted. Audrey is accustomed to receiving gifts from prospective parents hoping to curry her favor. Ethics require her to return most of these gifts, but one gift giver becomes so persistent that Audrey has a difficult time handling what begins to resemble stalking.

Sarah Price has fallen in love with Easton, the school’s historic and impressive building, the curriculum, and, of course, its reputation as the premiere educational institution in the city. Sarah fervently believes that her son, Eli, is special and deserves to be admitted to Easton. She’s on a mission to convince Audrey.

Because the actual applicants are only five years-old, Audrey must consider, along with reports from preschool, the families. And since this class will include Calvin, she’s being even more selective this time around. Are these children she would choose as Calvin’s friends? And are the parents ones she would like to socialize with? 

Although the application period has closed, Audrey receives an email from Sarah, calling herself “a truly disconsolate Manhattan mom,” and begging that Eli still be considered. Maybe it’s the two glasses of wine Audrey has consumed before dinner, but she emails Sarah back saying she will accept the application. Arriving at her office the next day, a large bouquet of hydrangeas sits on Audrey’s desk. There’s no card, but Audrey suspects Sarah is the sender. The next night, she receives a package containing nesting dolls, which some might find adorable, but Audrey finds creepy. This time there is a card and Sarah is the gift giver. Audrey now berates herself for breaking one of her own rules, accepting an application past the deadline. Although she doesn’t tell Luke about Sarah, she does tell Chippie who wants to launch a full on counteroffensive, hiring a PI to investigate Sarah. Audrey says no, but truth be told, she is worried. Could Sarah be dangerous? 

When the story shifts to Sarah, we learn more about why she is so determined to have Eli admitted to Easton. We also learn about what other strategies Sarah is employing to convince Audrey.

While The Last Applicant is about private school hysteria, it’s also about parents, families, love, and loss. There are secrets galore and as they trickle out, the focus is on what mothers will do for their children and also what women will do to save each other.

The Last Applicant
Rebecca Hanover

Top photo: Shutterstock

About Charlene Giannetti (697 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.