Published by Riverhead on July 2, 2019
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.
I expected to like The Gifted School just ‘okay,’ to be totally candid. It came to me as a Book of the Month offering, and I shrugged and selected it. Mostly because I had already received a copy of Lock Every Door, which was my #1 choice, from a wonderful blog tour group. So truth be told, if it hadn’t shown up on BotM, I probably would have never looked twice at The Gifted School. But let me just say right now: I am so glad it came to me, I honestly liked it more than Lock Every Door, and it reminds of me some of my favorite contemporary fiction from years gone by that I wish would go back to its roots.
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
I was a gifted kid. I spent every Thursday during elementary school in a trailer classroom with my big-brained peers, and I took Gifted science and English courses all through middle and high school until I began to swap them for APs. Being “a gifted kid” was in my blood, and it was what I knew. My parents were proud of me – my whole family was – but it wasn’t my family’s identity. I was gifted, but I wasn’t Julliard gifted, Harvard or Yale gifted. I was full-tilt average as far as being gifted goes. My Achilles heel was math – I got straight As, but math came back a B every time without fail (minus one notable Geometry class in tenth grade, and my wonderful Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry teacher in twelfth grade who taught like a dream and helped me achieve my lifetime-coveted A in math).
Why am I telling you all of this when I know you patently don’t care? (Don’t act like you care, you don’t, shh). Because the parents in Holsinger’s novel care way too much. Like, take the kid you knew whose parents were overzealous in elementary school and multiply them by 5. Minimum. That’s where these moms and dads are at.
It would take forever to introduce you to the whole squad, but I’ll just say this: there are 4 moms who all met in an infant water aerobics class when their babies were … well, infants. They live in a bougie area of Colorado (clearly Boulder but we’ve wisely renamed it to avoid vitriol) that is right on the outskirts of a very impoverished area, not that many of them really notice. They are rich, or alternatively they pretend to be rich and hope nobody notices their worlds crumbling down around them. And these parents, whose children (all hovering around the preteen years) are all so gifted in so many ways are suddenly thrust into a quadruple-county (plus an incorporated city!) race to see whose little darling is good enough to get into the new gifted school.
Suddenly, friends become enemies, partners become aggressors, and kids who were geniuses to their mothers ten minutes ago now have giant, glaring flaws and holes in their personalities that might present a problem to their parents. What do you do when your child is gifted but still seems so incandescently mediocre? When that child is your entire life’s purpose and therefore a direct reflection on you as a parent and person both? Well, you cheat, lie, and steal. And that’s just what these parents do.
We flip between several narrators, though mostly we see through the lens of Rose – mother to Emma Q., a precocious, chubby little girl who loves to read and hang out with her best friend, Emma Z. Emma Z’s mom Samantha is the ringleader of the friend group, basically Charlotte Pickles from Rugrats.
Yes, hello, I’m squashing the patriarchy – call you back later!
There are others, too – twins Aidan and Charlie, whose divorced parents are in a world of problems for varying reasons, and Xander and Tessa, children to Lauren who was widowed as a young mother and has never quite recovered, instead making her son the center of the universe after Tessa hit a teen rebellion streak she never quite recovered from. And on top of all that, there’s an unexpected twist ending to really bring it all home.
There are a lot of characters, and while not every one has a POV we definitely see several. Narrative blurbs are interspersed with copy from Tessa’s YouTube channel, where she discusses what’s going on with her life and family. But we are never bored. While we mostly hear from Rose and the twins’ father (Beck), we also occasionally hear from the children, who all have their own distinct voices.
The Bottom Line
I cannot stress enough what fun schadenfreude this book creates. I spent so much time cheering these kids on, gritting my teeth against their parents’ failings and hoping for them to succeed. I loved to hate Beck, who is pushy and arrogant and absolutely drowning in debt, and Lauren who treats teenage Tessa like dirt. Honestly, though, you wind up disliking everyone because nobody is truly likable, not even the children – though hopefully they still have time to grow out of it, being kids and all.
Best of all, this one does not suffer from Big Red Bow Ending syndrome – I found it to be delightfully realistic and while the narrative made me wince and sent off all of my empathy sensors, I loved every minute of it. This reminded me of Big Little Lies, only if it had been written by Jodi Picoult circa 2006, when she still wrote so many POVs with so much grace and glued you to the edge of your seat.
If you like a good adult contemporary fiction, look no further. I promise you won’t regret it – especially if you were a gifted kid, or you have one yourself: this is a timely, important and vaguely satirical contemporary that won’t let you down.