“The Gifted School” Channels the Hilarity and Pettiness of a Society of Appearances

After taking on the streets of fourteenth-century London in A Burnable Book and The Invention Fire, Bruce Holsinger transplants his penchant for uncanny plot devices and social fabrics in flux to 2018 Colorado with his domestic drama novel The Gifted School.

Set in the fictional town of Crystal, “one of the most politically progressive towns in America with one of the least diverse populations,” the book follows four families. The mothers, Rose, Lauren, Samantha, and Azra, bonded with one another eleven years earlier on account of their affluence and the intellect of their children — including the “chess personality” of Lauren’s son Xander and Rose’s daughter Emma’s love of books. They all share the drive to steer their children in the right direction within a society putting a premium on personal success and public image.

But this steering puts all four sides on a collision course with vanity and one another when plans for “a public magnet school for the exceptionally gifted” dubbed Crystal Academy are announced, occupying not just the soul of Crystal Valley — “a majestic bowl of earth, stone, [and] sky” clouded with entitlement and privilege — but also the minds of the families, whose drive morphs into zeal as they compete for admission. It is as if filling those spots means filling the families’ respective voids, including Lauren’s compensation “for [her husband] Julian’s death by throwing herself into her [children’s] development and education” and Rose’s desire to bring up Emma without instilling in her an “unearned air of privilege in all too many kids in a town like Crystal.” As if the children themselves serve as extensions of their parents’ sense of worth. 

With language bearing “the eye for the telling [details]” about Crystal and the psyche of its inhabitants, not to mention the author’s research that runs the gamut of neurology labs and Andean culture, Holsinger depicts a society of appearances where even those suffering the most from liberal guilt and self-consciousness over Crystal’s need for pluralism shift their attention from taking care of themselves and others to taking care of themselves at the expense of others

Samantha’s husband Kev explores an ADHD accommodation in light of his daughter’s failing in the first round of Cognitive Proficiency tests for admission into Crystal Academy. Rose lies to Crystal Academy’s head Elizabeth Leighton about “a longitudinal study on gifted children and brain development.” The travails the families go through as they try to increase their kids’ chances of admission unravel the way that “neuronal receptors [sift] the world, the thousand mingled [auras] of the outdoors” — auras like the smog of pride the denizens emit while mollycoddling the next generation.

This miasma of vanity also swarms the kids, who seek to assert themselves by widening the gap between themselves and “parents [who] always want to manage the narrative instead of letting kids write their own.” With the likes of Xander’s purchasing lab kits to further his research on chess personality; the sibling rivalry between Aidan and Charlie over soccer; and a boy’s attempt to bypass the wishes of his house-cleaning Quechan mother by earning a spot at Crystal Academy via doubling down on “origami arrays [of] cars, trucks, trains, houses, and whole villages of animals,” Holsinger shows that no matter the age or station in life, pressure from familial and societal expectations can beget atomistic egotism that makes it hard for folks to reach out to others and bear one another up. 

It’s via the narrow admission chances (100,000 students competing for 1,000 spots) that Holsinger also explores the gap in expectations between those who seek to level the playing field in the name of equal opportunity — Leighton’s dedication to “racial, ethnic, religious, geographical, and economic diversity” in the admissions process — and those who feel that opportunity belongs to those with the drive and the means to afford entry into hallowed institutions via “intensive test prep and one-on-one tutoring.”

As complex and stifling as the zero-sum game of families keeping up with admission demands — and one another — can be, so too is keeping up with the different narrative threads as the book jumps between chapters from the perspective of a member in one family to another person in a different family.

One may say that in his attempt to mirror the fast pace and high pressure of “today’s dog-eat-dog corporate [and educational] environment,” Holsinger forewent the crafting of a smooth reading. Perhaps this could be to bridge the gap between the reader and the characters, to not just observe how the fear of worthlessness can cause folks to take desperate measures to get ahead — like Rose erasing the name of her daughter’s best friend from a joint project she submits to Crystal Academy as part of Emma’s admissions portfolio — but to also feel the characters’ agony, especially when the climactic portfolio presentation at Crystal Academy comes to pass and interfamilial tensions reach a boiling point.

Equal parts touching with its domestic drama and biting with its depiction of a rat race that turns people’s relationships into a rope war — especially when recalling the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal — The Gifted School channels the hilarity and pettiness of a society of appearances, pitting folks not just against the fear of insignificance but also against one another. The novel is a cautionary tale on the shades of egotism one may bear, like forming exclusive school clubs that shame “lesser” students. It’s a book that breaks down the way folks shirk their responsibilities toward themselves and one another to seek external validation via prestigious opportunities and run away not just from the phobia of failure, but also from their rational selves.

The Gifted School
By Bruce Holsinger
Riverhead Books
Published June 30, 2020