Bruce Holsinger is an English professor at the University of Virginia, a medievalist whose first two novels were set in 14th-century London. With his new novel, Holsinger has moved forward seven centuries and across an ocean. The Gifted School is a contemporary story about high-stakes parenting, set in an affluent Colorado suburb.
The novel’s four moms—Rose, Azra, Samantha and Lauren—have been best friends for a decade. Together, they’ve weathered death, divorce, addiction and travel-team sports. When they learn that a charter school for gifted middle and high schoolers will open in Crystal (a fictionalized Boulder), they respond with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But before long, they’re caught up in the school’s competitive admissions process, each trying to find a hook for her kid.
Although the novel’s point of view shifts with each chapter, Holsinger has made an interesting and smart decision to offer the perspective of only one of the four moms. That’s Rose, an ambitious neurologist who’s exasperated with her husband, Gareth, an underachieving novelist. Other point-of-view characters include Beck, the soccer dad ex-husband of Azra, and Ch’ayña, an immigrant grandmother who cleans houses. We also get the perspectives of three kids: Emma Z., daughter of Samantha, the most affluent mom; Xander, an 11-year-old chess whiz on the autism spectrum; and Tessa, Xander’s troubled 16-year-old sister.
Yes, it’s a lot of characters to keep track of. But the novel’s frequent perspective shifting, interspersed with faux newspaper articles, texts, Facebook posts and video narration, keeps the story moving through the months leading up to the gifted school’s opening. As the story unfolds, we learn that most of the characters harbor secrets, not all of them having to do with parental ambition. These secrets, compounded by a devastating project undertaken by one of the kids, are revealed in the novel’s climactic final act at the school’s open house. An astute reader may predict part of the outcome, but the story still offers satisfying surprises.
Reminiscent of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, The Gifted School is a story of trouble in paradise with timely commentary on hyperparenting and the lengths to which parents will go to ensure that their kids remain “exceptional.”