Monday, July 22, 2019

Book Review: "The Gifted School" by Bruce Holsinger

It's always nice when fiction illuminates the worst in people, isn't it?

Rose, Samantha, Azra, and Lauren have been best friends for years, in many cases since their kids were infants. The four women and their families have weathered many crises—death, divorce, troubles with their children and their marriages, etc. While there are certainly interesting dynamics among the four of them, there doesn't seem to be anything that can keep them apart.

When word gets out that their affluent town of Crystal, Colorado is building a school for gifted children, all four women react to the news differently, especially when they learn there will be a limited number of slots available at every grade level, and decisions will be made based both on test scores and other factors.

Samantha has always believed her daughter, Emma, is practically perfect in every way, so for her it's a given that Emma will be accepted. Rose's daughter Emma, who is best friends with Samantha's daughter, may be smarter, but she isn't as driven or as competitive as the other Emma. But what would happen if one Emma got in and the other didn't? They've been inseparable since infancy.

While Azra's twin sons, Charlie and Aidan, have focused more on soccer than academics, there's no reason they shouldn't be considered for the school as well, despite the misgivings of Azra's trust-fund yet hippie-esque ex-husband. Since her husband's death, Lauren has focused most of her energy on her son, Xander, who actually is gifted, but at the expense of her older daughter, Tessa, who has dealt with challenge after challenge without the support of her mother.

"Parents always want to manage the narrative instead of letting kids write their own."

Following the perspectives of multiple characters, including several of the group's children, The Gifted School is a melodramatic yet insightful look at how competition and envy can bring out the worst in adults, laying bare secrets long kept hidden, in some cases pitting spouse against spouse and friend against friend. The book also examines the pros and cons of schools for gifted children, the biases of testing and other admission-related decisions, and the thin line between striving for equity and creating quotas for traditionally under-represented populations.

I expected the book to be a little more campy and entertaining than it was. While some twists are telegraphed early on, Bruce Holsinger did throw in one twist that upended the characters, and it really didn't feel genuine to me. I thought that Holsinger makes some interesting arguments, but the majority of his characters were so unlikable it was difficult to have any sympathy for them.

There's a lot going on in The Gifted School. There were a lot of storylines to follow, and while I understood the points Holsinger was trying to make, I could have absolutely done without the whole storyline featuring the group's cleaning lady and her family, because it kept dragging the story away from its core.

Holsinger is a talented writer, and his storytelling definitely kept me reading. Those of you who enjoy stories of people acting horribly to each other to advance their children's best interests (or perhaps their own) might enjoy The Gifted School a bit more than I did.

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