The Gifted School: A Novel by Bruce HolsingerThe Gifted School: A Novel by Bruce Holsinger

The Gifted School: A Novel

byBruce Holsinger

Hardcover | July 2, 2019

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"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.
Bruce Holsinger teaches at the University of Virginia and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.
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Title:The Gifted School: A NovelFormat:HardcoverProduct dimensions:464 pages, 9.28 X 6.25 X 1.37 inShipping dimensions:464 pages, 9.28 X 6.25 X 1.37 inPublished:July 2, 2019Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0525534962

ISBN - 13:9780525534969

Appropriate for ages: All ages

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Read from the Book

oneRose It was on the second Thursday in November that Rose got her earliest inkling of the gifted school. Months later she would swipe back through the calendar and finger that day as the beginning of it all. The hours that planted the seed, traced the faint shape of things to come. The school was still no more than a whisper in the air when she saw her friends late that afternoon, a mere ripple of unease as she settled into bed that night with her husband. But it was already a presence among them. A lurking virus, its symptoms yet to show.She spent that Thursday in the neuro ward, where her most severe case, a girl of fourteen, lingered at the tail end of an induced coma. Brain trauma with swelling, another helmetless cyclist felled on a city street. Her face was uninjured and serene, with good and improving color. Strong pulse, normal blood pressure, lungs ready to take over; on the edge of consciousness, though yet to return. Rose ran through the rest of the teen''s vitals, searching for something she might have missed.The parents hadn''t left the room for hours. The mother lay sleeping on the pullout, and the father sat slumped by the bedside. The crescents of skin beneath his eyes had darkened over the last three days, bruised with his fatigue."When will she wake up, do you think?" he asked, only half-aloud. His hands stroked his knees, as if petting twin cats."Hard to say." Rose touched his shoulder. "But we''ve weaned her from the pentobarbital and she''s breathing on her own. The rest is up to Lilly."At the sound of his daughter''s name he looked up wanly. Rose answered more questions while bending to wipe a line of drool off Lilly''s cheek. The moisture had scooped out an indentation on the pillow, a soft cup of foam, and the girl''s parted lips vented a sour smell.When the father closed his eyes, Rose slipped out and strode down a row of rooms to check on an epilepsy case. Though reluctant to leave her patients behind, she would, in less than an hour, be rotating off her autumn cycle as inpatient attending in pediatric neurology, a hospital duty she performed for three two-week stretches each year. Her department chair had tried to limit Rose to shorter stints, deeming her time in the lab more valuable, but Rose loved this part of her job and refused to surrender more of it. On-call weeks were her only chance to heal in the moment, to put a brain scan to a face. There was a part of her that thrived on the machines and the murmured consults, the cleaning agents and the collodion, even the rotten-egg stink of a GI bleed down in the ER.The admit was an eight-year-old boy with an undiagnosed seizure disorder, doing fine now, though his latest episode had been alarming. Rose left detailed notes in the electronic file, demonstrating a few shortcuts in the new software system to a medical student on neurology rotation. She was back at the nursing station filling in a chart when a text from Gareth shook her phone.How about Shobu???? she replied.For tonight. Rez at 7:15.Rose stared down at the screen, longing for a bath, a cuddle with her daughter, a movie-anything but date night. Canceling again, though, would only make things worse. She texted Sounds good but had to remind him of her earlier, more agreeable plans: a round of drinks with friends, to celebrate a birthday. Then she would be home by six-thirty for some time with Emma Q before the sitter came.Did Q practice? Rose texted.Yes.Do her math worksheets?Yes yes. Love u. JRose set down her phone, even the lazy u a mild irritant these days. She didn''t like casually texting about love, not anymore, and her nerves were too dulled for an emoji.Minutes before end of shift a nurse''s voice summoned Rose back to Lilly''s room, and there she found the parents weeping and their daughter, glassy-eyed but with a weak smile, returned to a world she had almost left forever. A skin-slapping wind whipped down from the Continental Divide and scared up puffs of dust from the bricks. The brittle November air lifted RoseÕs spirits as she speed-walked up the Emerald Mall toward RockSalt. Pleasingly dark, not too loud, the bar served craft cocktails featuring spherical ice cubes with flower blossoms suspended inside; lavender martinis, hibiscus gimlets, daisy petals melting into gin. The place had become the favored haunt in recent months for the quartet of old friends. Inside, the youngest of the four, Azra, was already perched straight-backed at a high table, busy on her phone.The two had an unspoken pact and always arrived fifteen minutes before the others. As Rose neared the table Azra looked up through the loose strands of her hair and leaned in for a hug. A climber''s strength in her taut frame, a lilac scent wafting up from the collar of her sweater, a cozy oversize knit. Azra ran a high-end consignment store off the Emerald Mall once owned by her mother and always showed up wearing enviable finds. She was a Crystal native, one of the few Rose had encountered in this valley of new arrivals."I can''t stay long," Rose complained as she sat. "Date night tonight.""Oh dear.""I mean, once a week? Gareth wants to follow the counselor''s script to the letter. For me it''s just-""Pressure?"Rose picked up a fork, fingered the tines. "I understand why it''s important, to show Emma Q we''re making an effort. But lately the one-on-one is excruciating.""Though it''s only been, what, four months since you started therapy? Give it time.""At least he''s trying," Rose allowed, thinking: But am I? She wondered sometimes, because Gareth had done nothing wrong, really, aside from doing nothing at all."I had the same issues with Beck, believe me," Azra said. Rose watched her friend''s pretty lips work an olive. Azra had split with Beck after discovering his hook-ups with Sonja, their beloved Austrian au pair. Despite the tempestuous aftermath, the former couple had become oddly close since the divorce, their postmarital intimacy a continuing mystery to most of their friends. Rose almost envied the companionable rapport the two had established in the wake of their split, longed for that easy intimacy with Gareth, though she''d hardly trade her husband''s plodding consistency for Beck''s erratic bluster. Google total schlub jacked up on Viagra and Bernie rage, Azra liked to say, and you''ll see my ex-husband''s head shot."Look, Rose," she said, spitting out the olive pit. "Don''t be hard on yourself for trying to save your marriage."Another thing Azra liked to say. Samantha breezed in promptly at five, chin up, scanning the place for her minions; she flitted her eyes between the two womenÕs faces and down to their half-finished drinks, an eyebrow raised. She circled to give them each a brush of her lips, glossed in a soft pink, then pulled an empty stool from an adjoining table and squeezed it between theirs, forcing them to shift aside."What did I miss?"They filled her in. Samantha rolled her eyes upward to the exposed ceiling beams. "I hope the Emmas worked on their History Day project," she said to Rose. "Kev dropped the ball on Wednesday.""We''ll see," Rose said. One of Samantha''s tricks was to swerve any mention of Rose''s marital despair into lighthearted criticism of their husbands'' mutual shortcomings. Her own spouse, Kev, came in for occasional barbs, though always couched in terms of his hopelessness in the domestic sphere, which was Sam''s domain anyway as the only stay-at-home mom in their group."What''s the subject?" Azra asked.Rose said, "Horses. What else?""You''re so lucky you have boys." Samantha glanced at Azra with a friendly smirk.Azra stared back, inscrutable. "Blessed by a thousand gods," she said. Samantha was going on about shopping for a new car when Rose heard a distinctive cough that caused them all to swivel their heads and see Lauren, looking forlornly at two empty stools spaced wide, her friends clustered at the other half of the table. Quickly Azra jumped down to give her a hug and wish her a happy birthday. Samantha slid the extra stool to the next table as Rose shifted left, making them symmetrical.Lauren: easy to please, but you had to know how. She was a social worker for Youth and Family Services, possessed of a fierce social conscience that showed itself in ways both inspiring and, at times, prickly and harsh-chiding Azra for driving a minivan, Samantha for wastefully drinking through plastic straws so she wouldn''t smear her lipstick. For her birthday Lauren never wanted a fuss made, nor a large gathering with the families. They''d tried this once, a surprise party two years after Julian died. Total disaster; Lauren had been miserable the whole evening. Since then they''d kept things small. Just the four of them, for cocktails.After drink orders and a birthday toast, Samantha brought up Thanksgiving. They''d all been invited to the Zellar house, and Sam wanted to nail down contributions."We''ll have over thirty this year. Kill me now," Sam said, with an ostentatious sigh. A Thanksgiving busy-brag, quantity of guests as a measure of her family''s worth. They indulged their queen bee with talk of cranberries and yams until Lauren''s phone lit up."It''s Xander," she said, as if the president were texting in. Rose watched her turn aside on her stool and tap out a message to her son; like a pecking crow, sharp nose to the screen, head reared back to read his replies. Lauren had an interesting, wedge-shaped face that Rose had always thought austerely beautiful, and like most Crystallites she was fit, though she favored outfits that accentuated her straight-hipped frame. Most often khakis, worn with tucked-in button-down shirts and a cell phone pouch strapped to her belt.When Lauren looked up, her frown lines softened. "He still doesn''t like being left alone.""That''s sweet," Azra said."Last week he-""Oh god, Emma Z loves an empty house," Samantha said loudly, flagging the waitress. "She says it''s the only time she can do her reading without her parents getting in the way."Lauren''s mouth tightened. Rose, sensing the tension, spread her arms over the backs of the adjacent chairs and looked across at Azra."So, this Glen guy," she said. Azra''s potential new beau, chair of anesthesiology at the Medical Center. Rose knew him slightly, though it was Samantha who''d played yenta last month. Their third date had been Wednesday night. "We want the full debrief.""So did Glen," Azra replied. "Didn''t happen."A familiar joke but they laughed, relieved, because Azra centered them in a way the others never could, weaving accounts of her world they all thrived on, largely because it wasn''t theirs. Azra had dated half the single men in the Four Counties, it sometimes seemed, her joint custody of the twins leaving her more than enough child-free time for all the films, concerts, art exhibits, and restaurant openings on the Front Range. The stories she chose to tell, though, usually concerned her mishaps, her uncomfortable fix-ups; they were sculpted to make the others laugh-never to wonder what so much freedom might feel like.Rose wondered anyway. All the time.Lauren, on the other hand, had neither suffered nor enjoyed a date since her husband''s death eight years ago. Her hardened abstinence was almost a moral stance, all her attention on her brainy son. When Azra related her salty stories, Lauren would listen with her head cocked to the side and eyes blinking in wonder, as if enthralled by an acrobat or a virtuoso cellist: dazzled by a talent she would never possess, nor quite understand. Samantha reached into her fancy handbag and pulled out LaurenÕs birthday card. For gifts they always went in for something together, this year a day package from the Aspen Room, a spa three blocks down the Emerald Mall. Salt rub, massage, facial, the whole package probably costing twice their combined contributions. Samantha would have made up the difference.Once Lauren had had a chance to gush over the present, Azra leaned forward and asked, "So have you made a decision yet, for next year?"Lauren''s face brightened. Another gift: the chance to talk about Xander, her favorite subject."Still waffling. I wish Odyssey went through eighth grade, because it''s been great for him. But Xander really wants to be with the twins at St. Bridget''s.""They''d be thrilled," Azra said generously, though Rose suspected that Aidan and Charlie Unsworth-Chaudhury would be ambivalent at best about the prospect of Xander Frye attending their school next fall. Xander currently went to Odyssey, a private elementary for high-IQ kids that ran only through sixth grade. Lauren had been deliberating for months-frequently, loudly-over whether to keep him there one last year, put him in the Crystal publics where Rose and Samantha''s Emmas went, or enroll him at St. Bridget''s, a fancy parochial in Kendall County that Azra and Beck''s twins attended. (Not my idea, Azra would frequently protest, hands in the air, always quick to identify herself as a proud product of the Crystal public schools-but hey, it''s Beck''s money.)"The most important thing is that he continue to be challenged," Lauren went on, and they all listened raptly, for her birthday. "It can be hard for him when he feels condescended to. And he has so many social handicaps.""Not many academic ones, though," Samantha observed."Well, no. But if he''s going to switch the next year anyway, I''d rather bite the bullet now. I''m starting to resent the drive, the price tag. But I have to say, what you don''t find at Odyssey is the slower learners holding kids like Xander back."Rose wedged her tongue between her teeth."So a lot to think about," said Azra, nonjudgmental as always. "But I''m sure you''ll do what''s best for him." She turned to Samantha. "What about Emma Z?""We looked at Odyssey for next year, and it isn''t a good fit. Z''s just so social. We''ve thought about St. Bridget''s too. Same problem. Plus with Kev on City Council it wouldn''t look good, having our daughter in a private.""So she''ll go to Red Rocks," Rose said, and it wasn''t a question: the Emmas had been inseparable since their earliest months. Samantha had said nothing to her about taking her daughter out of the Crystal publics."Most likely."The snag of doubt in Sam''s words hooked Rose by the ear and spun her head around."Kev''s been looking into other options.""Like what?"

Bookclub Guide

"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 communityThis 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.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, Xander, 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 one another. 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?

Editorial Reviews

"[A] timely and relevant read for the summer." –Oprahmag.com"An insular epic that questions the notion of meritocracy, the hypocrisy of white liberalism, and the politics that trickle from the adult world down to their children." –The Paris Review"Addictive, whip-smart, acutely observed and sharply funny, The Gifted School trains its lens on a community where a talented child is a social commodity and asks how far some families might be willing to go in pursuit of status. A delicious read." – Gilly Macmillan, New York Times-bestselling author of What She Knew"I LOVED THIS NOVEL. Pitch perfect, razor sharp, compulsively readable and rich with delicious detail, this darkly funny satire combines the gimlet-eyed world view of Jonathan Franzen with the propulsive narration of Liane Moriarty. I can’t remember the last time I’ve enjoyed a novel as much."— Christina Baker Kline, #1 New York Times-bestselling author "[Holsinger’s] subject of parents charging past every ethical restraint in pursuit of crème de la crème education could not be more timely, and the Big Little Lies treatment creates a deliciously repulsive and eerily current page-turner."— Kirkus, starred review"I was blown away by The Gifted School. A smart, insightful, and engrossing story about how the prospect of getting their children into a school for the gifted causes a group of competitive parents to comport themselves in the most unseemly and ultimately destructive ways. Snapping with tension, this is a book for our times. It will push a lot of buttons for a lot of people." — Shari Lapena, New York Times-bestselling author of The Couple Next Door