NPR Review: 'The Gifted School,' By Bruce HolsingerBruce Holsinger's new novel — about overprivileged parents cheating to get their kids into a magnet school — is very topical, but the characters are too flat to hook readers' attention for long.
This March, an FBI sting code-named Operation Varsity Blues broke a massive and infuriating story: Rich, connected parents across the country were buying their kids into college. The scandal generated waves of attention, most of which combined humor, rage, and an absolute lack of surprise. Bruce Holsinger's new social comedy The Gifted School, which revolves around a seventh-grade variation on this drama, offers only the latter two. Its characters' desperate efforts to get their children into a new public magnet school is infuriating, but it's nothing new.
The Gifted School's plot is far less extreme than the college admissions scandal, mainly because it centers around transgressions somewhat smaller than bribing the Georgetown University tennis coach to pretend your child plays tennis. The impulse behind the transgressions, though, is the same. Holsinger's characters are privilege-hoarders, wedded to the conviction that their children deserve to go to the "gifted school" not by virtue of intelligence or achievements, but by virtue of being their children.
The Gifted School is set in Crystal, Colorado, a fictional town filled with wealthy, high-achieving liberals. It's a classic pressure cooker, a place where every after-school activity is geared toward Ivy League applications. Holsinger's protagonists tend to believe in the Ivy League, and in the idea that educational privilege confers both financial and moral well-being. Their liberal-centrist idea of goodness could be fertile ground for social commentary, but Holsinger rarely delves deep into political issues. The novel inhabits a safer tension: Its characters believe they are good people, but are not. The problem is that most of them are bad characters, too.
The Gifted School, like many social comedies, operates from within a group of friends. Rose, Azra, Samantha and Lauren met at a baby swim class, and remain close a decade later. Now, all four have a child they hope will get into the magnet school; two are willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get them there. The tensely loving dynamic between the friends is well-wrought, but Holsinger stumbles in not allowing all four of them to narrate. Instead, he splits the point of view between six characters: Rose, Azra's ex-husband Beck, Lauren's two children, Samantha's daughter Emma Z, and Samantha and Rose's housekeeper's mother Ch'ayña.
Holsinger never tries to keep these six voices equal. Lauren's children serve only to advance the plot. Emma Z is insightful for a preteen, but in a novel about adults' concealed moral failings, a middle schooler can reveal only so much. Unfortunately, a similar principle obtains with Ch'ayña, who remains separate from the novel's main action, though her grandson is applying to the magnet school, too. Her chapters are pleasurable to read, and she's by far the novel's sanest character, but she serves too overtly as a voice of reason to attain a full voice of her own.
That leaves Rose and Beck. Rose, as Emma Z points out, is uptight and awful. She complains that her husband's "laissez-faire parenting style was already having an effect on their daughter's body and mind, whether in her overconsumption of the muffins and cookies he baked as after-school snacks or in his unthinking indulgence of her whims — as when he passively allowed her to slog through the Harry Potters for the third time." Rose never indulges her own whims. Instead, she scolds her husband, suffocates her daughter, and makes herself miserable. That misery, Holsinger implies, leads her to lose all self-control in the magnet school application process. Because Rose has substituted control and achievement for happiness, she finds the idea that her daughter might not get into the "gifted school" intolerable.
Rose is a nightmare, but she's nowhere near as bad as Beck, an entitled Bernie bro living on the last of his trust fund. He bounces his employees' paychecks, forgets his wife's birthday, and is self-righteous about everything from his IPAs to his vintage porn. His parenting would have Rose in fits; at one point, he realizes that his twin sons have acquired several R-rated video games, "complete with stacked women and avatars with the weaponry of a psychopath shooting up a shopping mall. Way too old for his eleven-year-olds, but what's a laid-back dad supposed to do?"
A minor mystery in The Gifted School is why Azra married Beck, or befriended Rose. She seems to have both common sense and a moral compass, and might have served Holsinger far better as a narrator than any of the ones he chose. As is, reading The Gifted School is an exercise in frustration, with only the sourest glimmers of schadenfreude. Unlike the real-life college admissions scandal, the cheating on offer here is too familiar to be entertaining. The bad behavior is predictable enough that the novel's suspense leaches away by its midpoint, leaving us with nothing left to do but wonder if four privileged children will get into a magnet school.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Washington, D.C.