Bruce Holsinger’s The Gifted School reads like a how to book on bad parenting. Four women bond in mommy-and-me swimming lessons with infants, growing in friendship as their children age. But when this set of kids hits fifth grade, a new public school is announced. A public school only for the especially gifted and talented. With that, the BFFs (who celebrate each anniversary by gifting coffee mugs with friendship quotations on each other) are off and spinning to help their kids achieve recognition as the gifted and talented special kids the moms know they must be.
Rose Holland-Quinn is a pediatric neurologist married to a failing author she loathes. Samantha Zeller, formerly a personal trainer, married rich and politically influential Kevin and now lives atop the social ladder. Rose and Samantha each have a daughter named Emma. Annoyingly, one is referred to as Emma Z. and one is referred to as Emma Q.
Lauren, a widow, has what she considers the world’s brightest fifth grader, the creepy Xander, and Tessa, a 17-year-old daughter who is just out of rehab and who loves to vlog her life. Finally, the saintly Azra, mother of twins Charlie and Aiden, is divorced from their defiantly unsaintly father, Beck who is remarried to teutonic stoic Sonya.
In addition to these four families, there is the family of Samantha and Rose’s housekeeper (names I’m not even going to attempt to spell). This family, — a mother, grandmother and son the same age as “the Emmas,” Xander, and Charlie and Aiden, who is also applying to the gifted school, — is really the only other likable group.
The narration switches between about six characters.
Incidentally, if I’m misspelling names, I apologize, I listened to this book on audible.
There were phrases that clung to my ears like the shriek of a heavy metal guitar as I listened to this book: Emma Z., Emma Q., “the Emmas (truly, revoltingly privileged),” the CogPro, the Emerald Mall. Like those repetitive phrases, the irritating traits of the characters emerge repeatedly, and to such a deleterious level that it’s hard to envision this could actually happen. But perhaps that’s Mr. Holsinger’s point with The Gifted School.
The word gifted slashed like a guillotine through other topics. Around the table the talk ceased.
“It’s called Crystal Academy, Dad,” Samantha said into the silence.
“A private?” Azra asked, apparently as clueless as Rose.
“No actually.” Lauren leaned in, turtling out her short neck. “It’s a public magnet school for the profoundly gifted.”
“They’re hailing it as the Stuyvesant of the Rockies,” said Kev grandly.
“A high school?” Rose’s question.
“Grades six through eight in the lower school, and the upper school is nine through twelve.”
“Oh,” said Rose. Profoundly gifted. Words to make the bones sing. This must be the mysterious “other option” Samantha had been hedging about at RockSalt last week. “What, a city school, just for Crystal kids?”
“Oh no,” said Kev. “It’s a joint venture between the City of Crystal and the Four Counties.”
“All five school districts?” Gareth asked. “But that’s a huge pool of eligible students.”
“No kidding,” said Samantha. “Over a hundred thousand kids for just a thousand spots.”
“The one percent,” Blakey observed snidely. Everyone laughed but she was right: one in a hundred. Kev’s acerbic sister was enjoying the conversation, Rose could tell, watching the reactions among her sister-in-law’s friends as they took in the news about the school.
“How does admissions work?” Azra asked.
“They’re doing it as a test-in.” Lauren, happily in the know. “A first round of CogPROs in the districts starting in March, then more individualized assessments in a second round.”
“CogPROs?” someone asked.
“Cognitive Proficiency Test,” said Lauren. “It’s a standard IQ battery.”
Over her wine glass Rose looked a question at Gareth and he shrugged it right back. Neither of them had heard a word about this school.
“Where are they building it?” Gareth asked.
“The upper school will be out in Kendall County,” Kev answered. “But the lower school is going in the old Maple Hill site.”
“Six or seven blocks from here.” Samantha nodded vaguely west, in the direction of her back deck.
“It’s a done deal,” said Kev. “The contractor’s an old buddy of mine and they finalized the building permits last week. The refurbish kicks off in January. They’ll be up and running by July, hiring staff this spring for a fall opening. These guys are moving fast.”
How do you know all this?The question never reached Rose’s lips, because the Zellars always knew, and besides, Kev had been on City Council the last three years. Any big building project in town, let alone one as visible as a new magnet school, would already be on his radar.
“So, Rose, will you apply for Emma Q?” said Edgar, still pressing for an answer.
“Who knows.” Rose was already seeing years of small classes, innovative pedagogy, Barnard admissions staff cooing in approval. “We might check it out.”
I should add as a disclaimer that as an aunt of four, I have never been intimately involved in the competitive nature of g.p.a.s, SATs, ACTs, magnet schools, and/or whatever the local name for the “cog/pro” is. Thank Goodness.
On a national level, though, it’s no secret that celebrity parents have recently been stung in similar FBI investigations. What a serendipitous time for The Gifted School to be published. As NPR put it: “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.” https://www.npr.org/2019/07/02/737125569/in-the-gifted-school-ripped-from-the-headlines-parental-scheming
The New Yorker said: “Holsinger captures the language of anxious parenting: the neuro-jargon, the tone of chirpy terror…There are moments of white-liberal affectation so sublime that they waft off the page like laughing gas…And yet the oblivious parents are more than fodder for hate-reading. Holsinger renders his helicopter moms and soccer dads so precisely that one understands their motivations, even feels their longing and pride…helps us to inhabit the élites themselves, not in order to vindicate them but so that we can know, viscerally, how they tick and what logic governs their actions.”
As the novel advances, the tension of what will these people do next to give their children an advantage, devolves into: ok, which ones get into the gifted school. And, for me: is anyone ever going to address the fact that Xander (and his sister Tessa to a lesser degree) is a total sociopath?
It’s a novel rife with fodder for a great book club discussion and it’s a quick read. Yes, there are annoying elements, and other than housekeeper and her family and the saintly Azra who is unfortunately not as present on the page as one would like her to be, there are no sympathetic characters. “Hate-reading,” is accurately funny.
I bet you can’t wait to read it to see if you recognize anyone from the halls of your children’s own magnet school.
During the Crystal Academy Open House, a buffet was set out for all attendees that included fun little tidbits like “grilled tofu” on a grill that proclaimed “NO MEAT ON THIS GRILL” and gluten-free and peanut-free options.
In addition, there were grilled hamburgers, grilled vegetables, and hot dogs. Lemonade. And an ice cream sundae bar, complete with chocolate sprinkles.
That’s what I’d serve.
My playlist would include:
Rocky Mountain High, John Denver
Be True to Your School, Beach Boys
Beauty School Dropout, Frankie Avalon
Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana
Smokin’ in the Boys Room, Motley Crue
MOVIE CASTING for The Gifted School
First, I would be shocked if this hasn’t already sold for production.
Second, I stalked Bruce Holsinger’s Facebook page (we have one mutual friend in common) and he had a photo of Zach Gallifinakis up with the caption “dream casting for Beck.” It made me laugh out loud. YEP.
Rose Laura Linney
Samantha Sarah Jessica Parker
Lauren Amy Poehler
Azra Indira Varma
Beck Zach Gallifinakis
Kev Paul Sparks
Gareth Luke Wilson
Betsy Layton Maya Rudolph