Nestled in a picturesque valley outside of Denver, Crystal is home to a group of best friends who have been like family since they met at a baby swim class over a decade ago. They’ve always been there for each other’s families through divorces and death, troubled children and differences of opinions; however, when a new school for gifted children opens its doors, the families find themselves in competition and their bonds begin to strain.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. I don’t have children and have no concept of what it means to put children in school, spend time with a fifth grader, or watch my friend’s children grow up. YET, I loved this book for all of those reasons and more. Perhaps the most stand-out feature of this book is simply the speed with which I read it. Not all 500 page books are created equally and what separates the good from the great is always pacing. The Gifted School is incredibly paced, climbing to an inevitable atomic bomb and keeping me hooked in right from the very beginning.
The number of main characters in this book is significant, as it centers around four women, their husband’s / ex-husband’s and their children. We ultimately get first person narration from only about four, yet we know so much about each person in the story due to the closeness of their community. Beck, ex-husband and father of athletic twins, was a trainwreck throughout the story, though this realization is delivered in the most believable, in-denial type of way. Rose, mother of one of the two Emma’s in the story, was trying her best but was mostly pretty insufferable. And on and on. Many props to the author for creating this tribe of characters and giving each one distinct depth. The author mentions the amount of time he spent writing this book in his author notes, and the world-building and characterization is a testament to that fact.
I also really enjoyed the rich psychological themes of this story. We watch parents who are best of friends fixate on a shared goal (in this case, getting their children into the new gifted school) and start to succumb to paranoia, sabotage, lying, and scheming. In the process, long-buried rifts in the friendship facades are shaken and the book as a whole brings to light the importance of communicating frustrations instead of burying them to keep the peace.
The whole book is a social commentary on parenting in today’s world, the scary territory of treating children’s natural gifts and intelligence as an extension of a parent, and the extreme privilege of a community like Crystal. The book doesn’t shy away from highlighting the extreme “wealthy and white” nature of the town, even having one of the white, male, trust-fund fathers question privilege of the new gifted school while struggling to recognize his own. The message is received loud and clear and this book brings so much to the table in terms of discussions about children, the United States’s school system, and equal distribution of resources.
Overall, this book reminds me of Big Little Lies in that a group of moms and friends experience a life-altering couple of months together and we, the readers, get a birds-eye view into their community both through an adult perspective and through the eyes of their children. However, it is completely its own novel in its entertainment value, addictive prose, and thought-provoking subject matter.
PUBLICATION DETAILS: Riverhead Books; July 2, 2019; 978-0525534969; 464 pp; Fiction -> Family Life