My favorite thing about my children’s D.C. public elementary school was that you could not predict which child belonged to which parent. The combination of interracial, gay and international marriages with surrogate, adopted and blended families made for rich cross-pollination. Fifty-four languages were spoken within the community: “The Spanish girl” my son befriended turned out to be Swedish; an Ethiopian mother, hearing I’d lived in Oklahoma, wanted to tell me about her pen pal, Tulsa evangelist Oral Roberts! One little girl broke the school “ethnicity” form because her mother was Asian Indian and her father Wisconsin white. “What does that make me?” she asked the fourth-grade teacher, who turned the lesson into a class letter to the school board.
Do I sound smug? I don’t mean to. Every time Karen Kipple, the main character in Lucinda Rosenfeld’s novel “Class,” worries about keeping her daughter in a New York City public school, I want to shake her — and look in the mirror. One minute, Karen is remarking on “the “newfangledness” of the black children’s names and fearing that “the only thing she’d accomplished by sending her child to a mixedincome school was to make Ruby feel venomous toward at-risk children.” But the next minute she’s “teary-eyed at the spectacle and promise of so many beautiful children of so many different hues and hair types walking down the hall together.” Maybe that’s the role of satire: The life you’re cringing at may very well be your own.
Karen and her husband, Matt, had to work for what they have, which may be one of the reasons Karen is so acutely self-conscious. Her Ivy League classmates “knew about cocktails and catamarans, ski resorts and stepmothers,” and “it seemed increasingly clear to Karen that the random luck of birth accounted for most of what people called success in life.” The author shows great insight plumbing Karen’s constant need for approval. “Life experience was only half the equation,” she writes. “Confidence was the other.”
This timely novel captures every character in the worst light, and the grudge matches among Brooklyn’s liberal parentocracy are nastier than any playground brawl. Successful by their own measures, Karen and Matt live in a converted macaroni factory, spitting distance from several pretentious coffeehouses. To her credit, Karen “recognized that her life was ripe for mockery.” Rosenfeld is at her best when she takes jargon up a notch, such as the school’s “brilliant-and-exceptional” program, rather than dishing out warmed-over nicknames for Whole Foods (“Whole Paycheck”) or Design Within Reach (“Design Out of Reach”). She can serve it up fresh. Noting the menu at the bistro near her building — “cheeseburgers made of dry-aged beef and cave-aged cheddar” — Karen marvels that “in the new culinary economy, it seemed, everybody wanted food that had been sitting around for a long time.” When a macaron boutique replaces an African American barbershop, she looks at the “Easter eggcolored disks laid out in rows” and thinks, “This was what food had increasingly become — a luxury item, rather than a means to stay alive.” These observations are especially poignant considering Karen’s profession.
Matt and Karen are doing both well and good: She raises money for a nonprofit called Hungry Kids, and he is developing a realty website for low-income city dwellers. It is from this perch that Karen sends out her sticky judgmental strands. She sees an overweight black girl in grade school and imagines her “tragic life. No doubt there would be a teen pregnancy, followed by a failure to graduate high school, a dead-end cashier job at a fast-food restaurant, more babies with unaccountable men, food stamps, diabetes type 2.” Karen is hypercritical of the school’s teachers, the curriculum, the kids and the other parents, either because they’re absent or overly involved. Or is she projecting? Her internal rants often end with that question, evidence that so much of her disdain is prompted by defensiveness. In fact, her failings as a parent may well have nothing to do with school choice.
Whenever Karen spins out her web of scorn, she catches herself in it — and this reader, too. Karen objects to fruit juice in grade-school lunches; however, like most of us, she resorts to sugary bribes when necessary. And to her secret distress, Ruby is in the 25th percentile for height and the 80th for weight. So is it everyone else who’s undereducated, lazy and undisciplined — or is she projecting?
If Karen were more committed to neighborhood public schools, she might fight for needed funding and enrollment; if she were more fiercely protective of her daughter, she might rightly tackle issues related to safety or curriculum. Instead, she goes off the rails, as if her swings from derision to piety to rationalization have scrambled her moral compass.
Every time Karen offers her take on the multicultural experiment that is public education, I was reminded of the satirist Alexander Pope’s saying: “All looks yellow to the Jaundiced Eye.” Therein lies Rosenfeld’s talent as well as her lineage.
Mary Kay Zuravleff’s most recent novel is “Man Alive!”
By Lucinda Rosenfeld
Little, Brown. 339 pp. $26