WASHINGTON — Nestled on the Front Range of the Rockies, the city of Crystal was a largely upper-middle-class paradise, chock full of health-conscious and socially conscious — meaning, of course, impeccably progressive — Coloradans. Then in slithered a serpent in the form of a proposal for a new school, to be called "Crystal Academy," for "accelerated and exceptional learners." Suddenly it was paradise lost.
This "deliciously repulsive" story (one reviewer's scrumptious description) with "Big Little Lies" overtones (the same reviewer) is told in Bruce Holsinger's compulsively readable new novel "The Gifted School." It is perfect back-to-school reading, especially for parents of students in grades K-12. And it is wonderfully timely, arriving in the aftermath of Operation Varsity Blues — who knew the FBI could be droll? — which was the investigation into a very up-to-date crime wave, the scandalous goings-on among some wealthy parents who were determined to leave no ethical norm unbroken in their conniving to get their children into elite colleges and universities.
In Holsinger's book, school officials, speaking educationese, promise that as 100,000 children compete for 1,000 spots — the dreaded 1% rears its ugly head — there will be "a visionary, equitable, and inclusive admission process." Four mothers who have been friends forever, but might not be for long, begin becoming rivals in what they regard as a nearly zero-sum game, as they plot to game a process that looks alarmingly fair.
This is what Holsinger calls "advantage hoarding" and the "delicate ecology of privilege." Everything is hypercompetitive, even among Crystal's 11-year-olds, from History Day at school to the travel soccer teams, which involve "a lot of mileage, a lot of Panera" in an Audi Q7 with a "Feel the Bern" bumper sticker, with "all the Patagonia parents huddled by the pitch, cheering on their spawn in socially appropriate ways."
When one father takes his toddlers to a playground and other parents ask about his children's ages, he subtracts a few months to make them seem developmentally remarkable, for the pleasure of seeing "that flicker of worry in the parents' eyes." And when rival children do not make the cut for the new school, schadenfreude drapes the Rockies like snowdrifts.
Holsinger has deftly written a satire that arrives when it is needed most — when it is difficult to distinguish from sociology. As America becomes more cognitively stratified, with rewards increasingly flowing to the well-educated (or expensively credentialed, which is not the same thing), the recent college admission scandal has become, Holsinger says, "one of the great cultural parables of our time." It is a parable about, in another Holsinger phrase, "privilege-hoarding," as American life uncomfortably imitates his art.
George Will's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.