“The Gifted School,” Reviewed: How a Novel Can Unmake the Myth of Meritocracy
This past week, New York magazine published a story detailing a vicious power struggle within Grace Church, an élite nursery school in Brooklyn Heights. The article, which describes old-fashioned Wasps feuding with glamorous arrivistes, is a safari of rich people behaving badly. It is also the latest news item to embarrass the upper rungs of American education. In March, the F.B.I. uncovered a sprawling conspiracy among wealthy parents to bribe their kids into selective universities. That same month, the New York prep school Stuyvesant made headlines for accepting seven black students out of eight hundred and ninety-five offers. (The institution has long been plagued by cheating scandals.) These stories are often met with bafflement, their particulars—doctored photos! Taunts spelled out in stickers!—so loony that they feel like dispatches from another universe. It becomes hard to fathom the structural problems involved. With “The Gifted School,” by Bruce Holsinger, fiction steps into the breach.
Holsinger’s book is set in the affluent, fictional city of Crystal, Colorado, where “everyone said or thought, we are happy, we are fit, we are woke, and even our streets are named for gems.” The plot follows four families, the mothers of which met at a baby swim class eleven years ago. Rose, a pediatric neurologist, is married to a novelist whose “laissez-faire parenting style,” she fears, “was already having an effect on their daughter’s body and mind.” Her friend, Samantha, is a stay-at-home queen bee, and both of them overinvest in their children, Emma Q and Emma Z, who are about to enter the sixth grade. A third mother, Azra, who owns a high-end consignment store, is relatively sane; she and her ex-husband, Beck, whom she warmly describes as a “total schlub jacked up on Viagra and Bernie rage,” co-parent twin boys, one of whom has just begun to surpass the other in school and on the soccer field. Then there’s Lauren, who is abrasive and widowed. She obsesses over her chess-prodigy son while dismissing her daughter, who is artistic, troubled, and in possession of a personal YouTube channel.
Early in the book, these lives are charged by the news that Crystal Academy, a public magnet school for “exceptionally gifted” children, will open the following year. (“They’re hailing it as the Stuyvesant of the Rockies.”) The first round of admissions involves a cognitive-proficiency test, or the CogPro. The second round requires the applicant’s parents to assemble a portfolio showcasing the child’s special talent, or “spike.” (Holsinger captures the language of anxious parenting: the neuro-jargon, the tone of chirpy terror.) Cue lying, cheating, entitlement, and desperation. “In Crystal,” Rose thinks, “whose kid wasn’t gifted?” That one’s child—the carrier of one’s genetic material, the product of one’s values—might fall short of superlative is, for these people, an existential threat.
The point of view hops around. Intriguingly, Holsinger tends to filter the story through his least sympathetic characters, including Beck and Emma Z, while placing the more reasonable or gentle souls—Azra, Emma Q—just out of reach. A dissident perspective belongs to Ch’ayña, a Peruvian housekeeper whose grandchild, Atik, possesses the sorts of gifts that a school like Crystal Academy might actually help nurture. Atik’s is the only plotline with real stakes—elsewhere, the reader feels as though she is watching an enthralling, faintly distasteful sporting event, like a hot-dog-eating contest. There are moments of white-liberal affectation so sublime that they waft off the page like laughing gas. Beck appreciates that his second wife had “never given him crap about spending from his trust fund when he wanted a new mountain bike, a new guitar to shred, a new kayak.”
And yet the oblivious parents are more than fodder for hate-reading. Holsinger renders his helicopter moms and soccer dads so precisely that one understands their motivations, even feels their longing and pride. One senses that the author has his eye on previous books about élite education, which tend to unfold their concerns through an interloper: either a fish-out-of-water student (“Prep,” “Old School”) or a disaffected teacher (“Dear Committee Members,” “Academy X”). That mode comes easily. Most readers will naturally sympathize with an outsider—Atik or Ch’ayña, say—with whom they can forge a wink-wink rapport. What “The Gifted School” attempts is more difficult: it helps us to inhabit the élites themselves, not in order to vindicate them but so that we can know, viscerally, how they tick and what logic governs their actions. The book exposes how easily a mix of good intentions, self-delusions, and minor sins can escalate into the kind of skullduggery that might prompt an F.B.I. sting. “Every night,” Holsinger writes, “Rose came home from her mouse brains and next-gen sequencer to whisper an agnostic’s fierce blessing down through the skull and into the thriving brain of her only child.” If you accept that the fate of your precious daughter hinges on whether she is anointed by the genius school, then it follows that you will go to absurd lengths to increase her odds.
Holsinger is not the only contemporary novelist building a case against élite education. “The Expectations,” an elegiac début by Alexander Tilney, reserves its disenchantment for a later stage in the process: the moment of arrival on campus. Like “The Gifted School,” Tilney’s book eschews the trope of the alienated narrator. Its protagonist, Ben Weeks, is a squash champion from one of his boarding school’s reigning families, a triple legacy for whom popularity comes as naturally as breathing. The tension of the book flows from the fact that Ben’s status and advantages have prepared him for a version of adolescence that no reality can live up to. The novel is a study of self-consciousness and a too gentle interrogation of upper-crust norms and codes. Tilney seems to argue that, if boarding school does not agree with Ben, then it cannot possibly agree with anyone.
“The Expectations” throws Holsinger’s skill as a character draftsman into relief. Unlike the denizens of Crystal, Ben and his roommate, the child of an Emirati cigarette tycoon, never live on the page; Ben’s crush, Alice, is defined by not being defined by her large chest, which is about as narratively compelling as it sounds. Tilney appears to like his characters more than Holsinger does, and yet that affection never translates into specificity, intelligibility. What “The Expectations” does accomplish is the wholesale abandonment of the pretense that fancy, name-brand education has anything to do with academic or personal excellence.
“The Gifted School” makes a similar point, although the parents of Crystal may have more riding on the conflation. In the novel, it’s not just a handful of cheaters trying to pass off their children’s privilege as merit. The whole Crystal Academy admissions process depends on such sleight of hand. The words “gifted” and “talented” skate close to meaninglessness. Gifted at what? Talented at what? Functionally, the purpose of this language is to envelop those it designates in a hazy glow—to define an inner circle. For the people doing that defining, “academic potential” looks a lot like wealth and connectedness: the romance of talent obscures the fact of capital. What distinguishes these children, Holsinger asks, beyond their belonging to families that can afford enrichment classes, equestrian lessons, leadership training, and so much more?
This truth gives bite to the book’s frothy satire. It explains why the characters are so fervent about demonstrating their children’s academic success: theoretically, such success is one of the few things that their money can’t buy. Perhaps, by emphasizing educational attainment, they can justify their beautiful lives in a city named for a gem. Holsinger leaves the political implications of this maneuver largely unexplored. What he does show is Emma Z asking her mother if she is stupid, and Beck’s twin boys torn apart by competition, and Xander, the prodigy, so lonely that he ascribes personalities to chess pieces. Holsinger catches these parents committing, in Rose’s rueful words, a “collective crime against childhood.” While the adults of Crystal dream of meritocracy, their kids bear the burden. Gifted, indeed.