The Gifted School, by Bruce Holsinger

ladybird

An image from ‘Going to School’ (Ladybird books series 563) by M E Gagg; illustrated by Harry Wingfield; First Published 1959

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.

pikes peak

“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 childrengifted 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.

MENU

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.

MUSIC

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

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

the nestThe Nest has buzz. An excellent review by the New York Times. A huge advance payment to a first-time author from a publisher. It does not, however, have any characters I liked or could root for in his/her quest to attain a share of The Nest (egg).

faberge eggSummary

The Plumb siblings, (Leo, Jack, Bea and Melody) have been waiting. Waiting for years.
Counting their egg well before it hatched on Melody’s fortieth
birthday. Ignoring the concerns, counseling, and skepticism of friends, family, and lovers in a mutual, bull-headed reliance on the largesse that is to come. Frankly, none of them deserve their father’s well-planned beneficence.

It’s Leo, the eldest, who puts the nest into jeopardy with his incredibly selfish and stupid drug-addled behavior. The Plumb matriarch (widowed, remarried and the apparent source of her children’s disagreeable personalities) uses the nest rather than her own funds to solve Leo’s problems. Leo promises Jack (selfish, narcissistic, insecure), Bea (bland, depressed, colorless), and Melody (overbearing, self-pitying, stalker) he will repay the money. And ignoring all family and non-family history of big brother’s behavior, the siblings believe him.

New York Times Review

The New York Times review included the following passage:

28BOOKSWEENEY-superJumbo

Photo of the author by Lisa Whitman for the New York Times

Ms. Sweeney takes her story to Grand Central Terminal, and to the sequence she has said gave her the idea for “The Nest” in the first place. What if a group of siblings were forced to meet for lunch at the Oyster Bar, but each one of them required a fortifying belt at another place before the actual family meeting? It could tell readers a lot about the family in general and the characters as individuals, too.

It’s a handy trick, just right for the Nancy Meyers movie that “The Nest” could easily become. Ecco reportedly paid a disproportionately big advance for this book. But consider what Ms. Meyers or a similar director could do with four adorably mixed-up siblings and their romantic woes, crazy run-ins and rich-person problems. So what if the book isn’t very funny? Neither are those movies, and that hasn’t stopped them.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/28/books/review-in-the-nest-a-family-pot-to-split-sets-sibling-relations-to-a-slow-boil.html?_r=0

I couldn’t disagree more. Nancy Meyers wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole. There’s not much humor, no one to like or root for, and frankly, The Nest isn’t funny. At all. I’m not sure it it’s even supposed to be. To me, it read like a strident warning — not just about the family dynamics of inheritance but of the people we can become in our attempts to control others.

From the Book

He was tired of gossip. God, was he tired of gossip. By the time he sold it, SpeakEasyMedia had fully morphed into the very thing Leo most loathed. It had become a pathetic parody of itself, not any more admirable or honest or transparent than the many publications and people they ruthlessly ridiculed—twenty-two to thirty-four times a day to be exact, that was the number the accountants had come up with, how many daily posts they needed on each of their fourteen sites to generate enough clickthroughs to keep the advertisers happy. An absurd amount, a number that meant they had to give prominence to the mundane, shine a spotlight of mockery on the unlucky and often undeserving—publishing stories that were immediately forgotten except by the poor sods who’d been fed to the ever-hungry machine that was SpeakEasyMedia. “The cockroaches of the Internet,” one national magazine had dubbed them, illustrating the article with a cartoon drawing of Leo as King Roach. He was tired of being King Roach. The numbers the larger media company dangled seemed huge to Leo who was also, at that particular moment, besotted with his new publicist, Victoria Gross, who had come from money and was accustomed to money and looked around the room of Leo’s tiny apartment the first time she visited as if she’d just stepped into a homeless shelter.

My book club really liked the book. And I have to say I did take a lot from reading it. It was well-written, quick-witted, and I certainly learned a few lessons from it. Who not to be.

MENU

There’s an Italian, spring-themed dinner planned that is the denouement:

“Walker had lined the table with platters of bread and cheese, tiny ceramic bowls of olives. He’d scattered lemons and twigs of rosemary down the center.”

In addition, Walker served:

Champagne

Lemonade

Chicken scaloppini

Limoncello for dessert

Coconut cake

MUSIC

This is a stream-of-consciousness list inspired by my reading – some are mentioned in the text.

Just the Way You Look Tonight, Harry Connick, Jr.

Heartbreaker, Pat Benatar

You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, Leo Sayer

Jumpin Jack Flash, The Rolling Stones

I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor

All By Myself, Eric Carmen

Unchained Melody, The Righteous Brothers

Paperback Writer, The Beatles

MOVIE CASTING

Leo — Ben Affleck

Jack — Robert Downey, Jr.

Bea — Laura Linney

Melody — Laura Dern

Stephanie –Amy Adams

Walter — John C. Reilly

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