During the recent college admissions scandal, People magazine reported that actress Lori Loughlin — who paid half a million dollars to get her daughters into USC — couldn’t understand all the fuss. She hadn’t done “anything that any mom wouldn’t have done.”
Cue the hoots and howls of righteous indignation. As if the rest of us would even dream of it! We would never lie or cheat, bribe a test proctor or sweet-talk an admissions officer. Stars, they’re not like us.
Of course not. Though they are a little like the characters in Bruce Holsinger’s “The Gifted School,” a satirical look at what some parents will do for (and to) their children. It’s something of a departure for Holsinger, whose previous novels were thrillers set in 14th century England. Happily, he remains a master of clever plots and suspense. The result is a rare sort of book, a domestic drama with the pace of a whodunit. The most important question in a family drama, however, is not who but why. Why are parents so determined to have gifted children? And what are the consequences, for their children and themselves?
Holsinger describes the town of Crystal, Colorado, as a liberal enclave, idyllic and insufferable. It’s a place where “everyone said or thought, we are happy, we are fit, we are woke, and even our streets are named for gems.” This atmosphere of supreme self-satisfaction is blown away by news of a new magnet school, a school only for truly exceptional children. “They’re hailing it,” declares one parent, “as the Stuyvesant of the Rockies.”
Nobody takes the news more seriously than four female friends. Holsinger gives them and their husbands a range of upper-middle-class careers, attitudes and affectations. Rose is a pediatric neurologist hitched to a failed novelist, Gareth, who “had done nothing wrong, really,” she admits, “aside from doing nothing at all.” Azra runs “a high-end consignment store” and shares two boys with her ex-husband Beck, the kind of guy who, without any self-awareness at all, drives an Audi SUV with “a faded Feel the Bern sticker on the Audi’s bumper.” Samantha is “the only stay-at-home mom in their group,” whose wealth and sense of entitlement annoy Lauren, a social worker “possessed of a fierce social conscience that showed itself in ways both inspiring and, at times, prickly and harsh.” Readers may recognize these people from the local PTA meeting, or the bathroom mirror.
Why are parents so determined to have gifted children? And what are the consequences, for their children and themselves?
Different as these parents may be, they have one thing in common: Nothing matters to them as much as their children. Or rather, nothing matters as much as their children’s development. So Beck preps his boys — Charlie and Aiden — for tryouts at “the Rocky Mountain Fútbol Academy, the premier youth soccer club in Colorado.” Lauren’s little genius, Xander, has a chess and science tutor. Rose’s Emma Q. is a natural on horseback, while Emma Z., Samantha’s daughter, sits in on classes at the local university’s “Varner School of Leadership.”
The children are in every advanced program their parents can find, but none of it is enough. To the parents of Crystal, “The school was like a rare wine, or a piece of some exotic fish. Give us one taste and the world will change. My child deserves nothing less than this.” Like hunger or lust, the appeal of the gifted school goes beyond the rational.
Sure enough, the good citizens of Crystal start to act insane. They lie, cheat and sabotage one another. Holsinger deftly manages all their plots and schemes, showing how each character’s fate influences the others. In one wicked scene, Rose learns that while her daughter passed the school’s entry exam, Xander failed. She feels a “thrill through her nerves” and turns to her husband for “a carnal expression of parental pride.”
The novel is full of dark and funny moments. At the same time, it’s not exactly news that the upper middle class is full of hypocrites, in Crystal or elsewhere. Novelists have been skewering the bourgeoisie since there have been bourgeoisie to skewer. The best of them unearth the all-too-relatable hopes and fears beneath the bad behavior.
Holsinger is better at satirizing his characters than baring their souls. He doesn’t treat them the way Xander treats chess pieces — “as if he were inside their little dead heads and gaming out his plans.” Perhaps because the novel is so complicated and fast-paced, it never goes too deeply into how the characters feel or why. In the climactic scene, a disastrous open house at the gifted school, all the threads of Holsinger’s plot come together, even as Rose and her friends’ lives fall apart. In this moment it’s easier to admire Holsinger’s ingenuity than feel his characters’ pain.
Still, on occasion, one will have a flash of insight. Rose feels guilty when she considers “the ways she’d fantasized about Xander’s brain and how nicely it might fit her daughter’s skull.” In a way, this is worse than the celebrity frauds. They only lied to admissions officers. Rose and her friends are lying to themselves. They imagine that their children are someone else, or should be someone else, and so miss out on the chance to love them as they are.
They’re hardly alone. From the Apgar score to college admission, modern parenting offers endless opportunities for envy and self-deception. “Insidious,” Rose concludes, “these false versions of superiority and ease we project onto other families: how often they blind us to the surer comforts of our own.”
Riverhead Books: 464 pp., $26
Gleason is an instructor in the University of Southern California’s religion department and a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s “emerging critic” award.