"Like Big Little Lies with standardized testing, this addictive novel digs hard into the culture of striving parents and anxious children, exploring privilege, competition and the elusiveness of happiness. A deeply pleasurable read." - Meg Wolitzer
Smart and juicy, a compulsively readable novel about a previously happy group of friends and parents that is nearly destroyed by their own competitiveness when an exclusive school for gifted children opens in the community
This deliciously sharp novel captures the relentless ambitions and fears that animate parents and their children in modern America, exploring the conflicts between achievement and potential, talent and privilege.
Set in the fictional town of Crystal, Colorado, The Gifted School is a keenly entertaining novel that observes the drama within a community of friends and parents as good intentions and high ambitions collide in a pile-up with long-held secrets and lies. Seen through the lens of four families who've been a part of one another's lives since their kids were born over a decade ago, the story reveals not only the lengths that some adults are willing to go to get ahead, but the effect on the group's children, sibling relationships, marriages, and careers, as simmering resentments come to a boil and long-buried, explosive secrets surface and detonate. It's a humorous, keenly observed, timely take on ambitious parents, willful kids, and the pursuit of prestige, no matter the cost.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Bruce Holsinger teaches at the University of Virginia and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Read an Excerpt
The school came up a few minutes after the blessing. Edgar was reaching around to refill wine glasses when he asked, “So, Rose, will y’all be putting in for this academy?”
“What’s that, Edgar?”
“It’s the new—Samantha, hon.” He raised his voice. “What’s that special school you were talking about with my eldest grandson? 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.”
“And what about you, Tessa?” Blakey said.
Rose looked up. Blakey was leaning over her plate, looking at Lauren’s daughter in a not entirely friendly way. She had a surly mouth and flat affect that made her come off like a disaffected cop. “Think you’ll apply?”
Tessa, chewing, held up a finger. “I’m not really the gifted type,” she mumbled after she swallowed.
“Well you’re obviously a bright young lady,” Edgar said. His gaze wandered down to the top of her dress, a low-cut green velvet or velour, one of her own creations. “And everyone has gifts of some sort or another.”
Tessa screwed up her face. “I like to draw, I guess.”
“Do you now,” he said. “And what is it you like to draw, sweetie? Landscapes, that kind of thing?”
“Mostly fashion. Like clothes, outfits.” She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Shoes sometimes,” she said.
“Tessa has an incredible sense of style,” Azra put in from four seats down. “Tessa, tell them what you told me the other day. At BloomAgain.” She looked around the table. “Tessa’s been working for me at my store, a secondhand consignment place,” she explained.
“Oh,” Tessa said. She looked resistant and uncomfortable. She pushed at her hair some more. The table had remained silent, everyone curious about the exchange. Rose stole a look at Samantha, who had already started in on the rapid sequence of blinks she performed when impatient. (Wouldn’t do to have the Zellar Thanksgiving banter hijacked by an outsider, let alone a troubled young woman like Tessa Frye.)
“You said you think of dressing as an art form,” Azra coaxed. “Like sculpture or painting, right? But instead of stone or canvas you’re working with people.”
Tessa’s napkin was pressed to her lips. She removed it and started weaving it through her fingers.
“Well,” she said, looking at Edgar, “it’s kind of hard to explain. Sometimes I can see the shapes of faces and I understand, like, exactly what kind of outfit would work with those cheeks, or that haircut. Or what colors people should be wearing to complement the hue of their irises, or the shade of their skin. I also think about fabrics a lot, like texture and density and the way things hang. Sometimes I think about what a pair of pants would sound like when the legs touch, depending on the fabric. The resonance of that. I remember my dad had this barn coat he always wore when I was little. It was made out of this thick cotton-wool blend that—”
“And who’s that lucky fellow—your daddy?” Edgar surveyed the crowded table, assuming one of the non-Zellar men there that day was Tessa’s father.
“He’s dead,” Tessa said, watching him.
“Goodness.” Edgar looked stricken. “I’m sorry, dear.”
“That’s okay,” Tessa went on, more brightly now, opening up. “Anyway it was a cotton-wool blend that I’ve never seen in anything else since. When I scratched his pocket with my fingernail it made this beautiful ringing sound, and I keep thinking if I got some of that cloth and made something with it I could hear that same sound again. It’s stupid, but.”
With her eyes still on Kev’s father she forked a piece of turkey and chewed it slowly.
“Well,” said Edgar after a pause. “You do sound like a gifted young lady.” He reached across Blakey’s plate to pat Tessa’s hand. “Quite an imagination.”
“That’s so nice,” said Tessa, scooping her head over her food. “I could show you my sketches after we eat, if you want.”
“Hey Tessa?” Lauren barked sharply down the table, before Edgar could reply. “Let’s just see if we can get you through junior year, okay? We’ll consider that a victory.”
Tessa’s eyes flashed then dimmed. She looked down at her plate. The table went still, the only sound in Rose’s ears the clink of silver on china. From her angle Lauren’s face was obscured but Azra and Gareth were staring across at her, appalled. Samantha was looking off somewhere, lips pale and taut. Even the children had picked up on the sudden hush. Rose looked down into the parlor at the first kids’ table and saw Emma Zellar’s eyes roving from Tessa to Edgar to Lauren and back, missing nothing; and there was Q beside her, neck bent over her food, gobbling through a gravy-soaked pile of mashed potatoes.
“Well Happy Thanksgiving,” someone deadpanned into the silence. One of Kev’s brothers, Rose thought. Blakey made a low cruel laugh, and immediately Rose could see how this exchange would be parsed up in Steamboat, the big family cackling over that unfiltered friend of Samantha’s who’d been such a bitch to her peculiar daughter.
Rose got a patch of heat in her throat, feeling for Tessa—but oddly for Lauren, too, the way she had tainted the meal. Only a few at that table knew what their diminished family had endured over the years, the source of these occasional darts.
“Hey let’s get these cranberries moving around.” Samantha lifted a cut glass bowl, passed it down, and the feast resumed. A rough place Zellar-smoothed.
Reading Group Guide
1. What is your opinion of the families at the center of The Gifted School? Do you have different opinions about the various sets of parents: Rose and Gareth, Samantha and Kevin, Beck and Azra, Ch’ayña and Silea, and Lauren? If so, with whom do you sympathize most? Who do you relate to? Who is most at fault? Who do you think are the best parents for their children overall?
2. What is your opinion of the children? Discuss the characters of Emma Z, Emma Q, Zander, Tessa, Atik, and twins Aidan and Charlie. What are their responses to the pressures placed on them by their parental figures? In what ways do their families shape their behavior? Who among them will thrive as an adult?
3. Do you understand the general anxieties of this community of parents? Why do they feel so competitive about this school, given the fact that their children are already doing well in the previously available institutions? If you do consider the parents’ motivations and intentions justified, do you also understand the behaviors that follow? What would you have done in a similar situation?
4. How does the novel make you think about intelligence vs. giftedness; talent vs. skill; ambition vs. competition; privilege vs prestige? What role does privilege play in this story? What about ambition? Insecurity? How do the ambitions of some of the characters relate to prestige?
5. Consider the supportive roles that neighboring families can play in the raising of children within a shared community. Consider the good things that these families have contributed to each other. Now consider the secrets that many of the characters kept and the hurtful behaviors of which they were guilty. In the end, what do you think of these friendships? Would they have continued happily, indefinitely, if Crystal Academy hadn’t come along?
6. Tessa’s video blog offers an outlet for the expression of her feelings about her mother, Lauren, as well as Lauren’s group of parent friends. Do you think Tessa is justified in publically sharing their secrets? What is being said about the mother-daughter relationship between Lauren and Tessa?
7. The ALPACA group stages a significant online protest of Crystal Academy and of the idea of a “gifted school.” What do you think about their arguments? Has there been a similar debate about public versus magnet education in your community? Are any of the children in the book truly gifted? Why or why not?
8. The CogPRO is the standardized test that all students applying for Crystal Academy have to take before they can submit a portfolio. How do you feel about the way the application process is depicted? Do these admission criteria fairly evaluate the candidates?
9. Ch’ayña believes that administrators at the open house exploited Atik’s heritage. But Atik and Silea are happy with how he was celebrated. Do you agree with either position?
10. What do you think about the characters’ revelations at the end of the novel? Will Beck succeed in changing his financial situation? Will Rose, Samantha, Azra, and Lauren make different parenting decisions going forward? How did Ch’ayña’s views of the gifted school shift by the end of the book?
11. How do gifted-and-talented programs work in your local school district, and what roles do race and class play in these programs? Are some private schools offering the same thing that gifted programs do – but only for those children whose parents can afford to pay the tuition? Have there been controversies around education in your community?
12. Consider the news about the lines parents have crossed to get their children into college. Do you feel this applies to all levels of education? Have you, your parents, or your child ever crossed a line in pursuit of an educational opportunity?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger is a highly recommended domestic drama about parental ambition for their children. The prestigious community of Crystal, Colorado, is about to be one of the communities whose children will be able to attend the areas new magnet school for gifted children in grades six through 12. Of course admission hinges on receiving a high enough score on the IQ test, along with other requirements. The Gifted School follows a group of families where the four women, who have been friends for over a decade, are all about getting their precious gifted children into the school. The drama ensues as the meddling and competitiveness commences and friendships begin to fall apart. This is a great choice for a summer read. It is full of gossipy scandal and parents behaving pretentiously and badly. The children aren't perfect either, just FYI. There is plenty of friction between parents/friends and the children themselves. The one huge thing The Gifted School has going for it is the timeliness of the plot with the whole college admissions scandal. The involvement of these parents in their children's lives, looking at their abilities as a reflection of their own prestige, is eye-opening and, in some ways, horrific. Being caught up believing that your child is the best and most gifted of all the gifted children in all the land is nothing new. We've had these parents among us for years. Holsinger captures that essence of bad parenting as it merges with privilege, questionable ethics, and the parent's own competitiveness. The novel is well crafted and the plot moves along at a good pace, building up the tension and anticipation until the final climax, which is explosive. The narrative is told through several alternating points-of-view, so you can follow everyone's poor choices and become acquainted with all the characters, including the children. The different points-of-view result in the characters being all well-developed, and almost universally unlikable - with one lone, long-suffering exception. The biggest hurdle to overcome while reading The Gifted School is the occasional sheer repulsiveness of the parents, and their questionable ethics and choices. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House