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The Gifted School

Review

The Gifted School

In his third novel, THE GIFTED SCHOOL, Bruce Holsinger takes a satirical view of parents and children who have lost their collective common sense and, at times, their common decency. The book’s finale features an open house to help assess the prospective students for a newly established gifted school, and one of the enticements is a sundae station, a gooey mass of ice cream and toppings:

“You want sprinkles, Brie? Can you put your own sprinkles on? Just one spoon. Good job!”

“Flu season’s over, so, yeah, I’m doing this.”

“What, they couldn’t spring for organic maraschinos?”

“Sorry, Caden, the caramel sauce has high fructose corn syrup, so no, you can’t.”

These overheard exchanges are spot-on. Brie, Caden --- names for precious kiddos. Over-the-top praise about a few sprinkles. Spoken, genuine criticism about fructose and non-organic choices. The parents are teaching their children lessons of self-importance, focusing on the superficial and praising the mundane. And well they should: the parents are masters.

"The possibilities may seem overwhelming, to be sure, but Holsinger is very particular with details and patient in building the coming crisis."

This scene ends in quasi-disaster for the four families whose children are competing for slots at the Crystal Academy, a magnet school for exceptional learners, a shining promise on a hill in mythical Crystal, Colorado. The school is not yet open for business, which makes it all the more alluring. After all, everyone with a brainy kid of eligible age is treading this edge of want --- and in Crystal, whose kid isn’t gifted? “The school was like a rare wine, or a piece of some exotic fish. Give us one taste and the world will change.” Following mythical guidelines of impeccable educational advice, this concept of selective superiority is embraced.

Four mothers established a friendship 11 years ago swimming at the local gym. The advertisements for H2OhBABY! were corny, but their children needed lessons --- and, as it turns out, the women needed one another. The family configurations of mother/father/children shift and change through divorce, cancer and professional aspirations that emerge and shadow their lives.

Through the process of applying for coveted seats in the Crystal Academy, each family comes under scrutiny. Azra was married to the foolish Beck, who turns out to be a Soccer Dad Incarnate. Their divorce was textbook folly on his part, but their joint parenting seems to be working for the twin boys. Samantha and Kev are super-rich, super-important and super-solicitous. Their daughter, Emma Z, is best friends with Rose and Gareth’s daughter, Emma Q. Lauren has one brainy kid and one easily dismissed not-so-brainy-kid.

Too many characters? Too many scenarios? The possibilities may seem overwhelming, to be sure, but Holsinger is very particular with details and patient in building the coming crisis. He does not repeat incidents, but instead prompts readers to remember and make connections for a backstory, trusting us to do our job.

There are the necessary outliers of satire, including a brilliant young boy who is incredibly poor but generous and kind. His Mexican mother cleans houses. An angsty teenager has a hidden talent and spends too much time vlogging and skulking behind closed doors. Now add mounting financial disarray for one family. The final ingredient: a delicious set of symbolic ceramic mugs that are gifted each year marking the anniversary of the four women’s friendship.

The opening scene is a perfect hook: we see Emma Z in a school room testing with other fifth graders for the first cut-offs for admission to the gifted school. Her indecision about Question 15 haunts the 11-year-old in each of us: almost --- but not quite --- knowing the answer. Outside in the lobby, the waiting parents jostle one another, edging to see who is still finishing the test. In the moment of realizing the now-obvious answer, Emma Z startles herself and drops her pencil. She will not have time to bubble in the answer. Laughter from somewhere out there. And the competition has begun.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on July 12, 2019

The Gifted School
by Bruce Holsinger

  • Publication Date: July 2, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0525534962
  • ISBN-13: 9780525534969