When we lived in St. Louis, my wife briefly worked at the most exclusive grade school, and I worked at the most exclusive high school. We were laborers on that gold-plated assembly line leading to Cambridge, and we learned that the anxiety of wealthy parents cannot be exaggerated: Being admitted to the right grade school is key to being admitted to the right high school, which is key to being admitted to an Ivy League college, which is the only guarantee of happiness and success. One poor mark in second grade on a diorama about the Pilgrims could derail a whole life.
That mad obsession with securing the great chain of privilege has led to a culture in which children strategize their charity work for maximum résumé presentation, and trilingual sophomores compete for internships on cancer research at the National Institutes of Health. The Wall Street Journal reports that well-heeled families take SAT tutors along with them on vacation at more than $500 an hour.
Any number of wise people have tried to talk some sense into these stressed parents and their children. Almost 20 years ago, Josiah Bunting, the former headmaster of the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, published a terrifying novel called “All Loves Excelling” about a smart young woman so desperate to get into Dartmouth that she works herself to death. In 2015, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni published “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.” And witty writers such as Susan Coll and Amy Poeppel have helped create a small subgenre of academic satire about our admissions insanity.
But life has a funny way of outstripping our grimmest warnings or most absurd parodies. (See: Donald Trump.) This March, the FBI revealed Operation Varsity Blues, a massive investigation into the largest-ever college admissions scam. The bureau accused a group of wealthy parents — including Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin — of cheating, lying and bribing to get their kids into exclusive schools. You’ve heard the delicious details: A highly paid adviser allegedly concocted a learning disability so that a child could get extended time on a test. Another is said to have skipped that step and just hired brainy subs to take tests for clients’ children. In the most outrageous instance, applicants’ heads were apparently Photoshopped onto the bodies of athletes in hopes of impressing admissions officials.
Now, four months after that sensational news story, comes this hefty novel by Bruce Holsinger about a group of wealthy parents who cheat, lie and bribe to get their kids into an exclusive school. One wants to say that “The Gifted School” is preternaturally timely, but it feels, instead, like a faint imitation: a story dripped from the headlines.
And even if current events didn’t overshadow “The Gifted School,” the novel’s opening would still feel weighed down by its desultory pace. Many chapters of exposition are devoted to introducing a large cast of characters in four families who live in a tony Colorado town with all the right progressive attitudes (think Boulder). The four mothers met years ago and have maintained a close bond through the usual challenges of infidelity, illness, divorce and widowhood. As the novel opens, their assorted children, mostly around 11 years old, are smart and articulate. What could possibly disrupt such an idyllic set of friends?
Behold: Crystal Academy, “a new public magnet school for exceptional learners.”
Suddenly, these people who have supported one another for years find themselves competing for a limited number of precious slots, and they all know it’s a zero-sum game. Everyone acknowledges that the public school system is great, but that’s beside the point: Crystal Academy is exclusive, and nothing is more desirable than something our friends and neighbors can’t have. The admission committee is looking for “a diverse community of exceptional learners united by a fierce desire to push the boundaries of learning to transform themselves and the world around them.” Well, “fierce desire” is in no short supply here. Soon, the community is tearing itself apart.
Although “The Gifted School” starts too slowly, once the story gets moving, it builds impressive momentum. Social ambition has an intoxicating effect on these otherwise considerate adults. After all, the students at Crystal Academy “will be Rhodes scholars and Supreme Court clerks. They’ll be international thought leaders.” What wouldn’t you do to ensure all that for your own brilliant child?
There’s plenty of wry humor in Holsinger’s portrayal of this dysfunction, especially the moral gymnastics that liberal parents perform to preserve the purity of their ideals. Everybody loves diversity, until it comes to school admissions; then accusations of elitism, affirmative action, privilege hoarding and political correctness start flying around like vampire bats.
At Crystal Academy, the admissions process involves multiple steps: tests, evaluations and presentations, all purportedly to identify “la creme la plus pure de la creme.” (What color does that metaphor suggest?) The final component of each application is the all-important “spike,” a project meant to demonstrate the child’s remarkably unique skill. As Holsinger illustrates, this is a requirement born of the best intentions but guaranteed to drive parents who have trouble with boundaries into unhinged fits of overhelping. (Years later, I’m still proud of the model of an elevated Peruvian hut that I built for my own third-grader the night before it was due. Who knew she had such talent!)
As the parents’ obsession with Crystal Academy grows more manic, the benefits of Holsinger’s deliberate pace become more apparent. In carefully constructed chapters, he traces the incremental descent of these people into their own private realms of shame, fraud and deception. Only too late does one mom realize, “It’s just not about the kids anymore.”
Holsinger, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, is a scholar of medieval literature, which may sound like a field remote from this story. But, in fact, his knowledge of the 14th century’s arcane culture may be the best preparation for capturing the inanity of contemporary educational theory and rhetoric. The pages of “The Gifted School” are laced with gobbledygook about “cognitive proficiency” and “the importance of multiple assessment measures.” And he shows himself just as skillful with early 21st-century communication as he is with late 14th-century parchment. “The Gifted School” is garnished with memos, texts and vlogs that perfectly mimic the electronic matrix of modern life.
But Holsinger is not at heart a satirist, or at least not a mean one. These harried parents and their children are drawn with real sensitivity, and despite how horribly some of them act, he doesn’t sacrifice anyone on the altar of his wit. His regard for their dreams and fears, regardless of their weaknesses and failings, remains deeply humane. Indeed, for such a relentless diagnosis of the toxic culture we’ve created, “The Gifted School” is, ultimately, a surprisingly hopeful novel. There’s a sweetness to its resolution, a satisfying possibility that no matter what monsters we parents are at times, we can still graduate to something better.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Bruce Holsinger
Riverhead. 464 pp. $26