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New Novel Asks: What Would You Do To Get Your Kid Into 'The Gifted School'?

When Bruce Holsinger heard about the "Operation Varsity Blues" college admissions bribery scandal he admits he felt "a shiver of self-recognition."

"I don't think there's a parent in America who hasn't had anxiety about where their kid goes to school," he says.

In Holsinger's new novel The Gifted School, that anxiety plays out in the fictionalized town of Crystal, Colo., where parents will do just about anything to get their adored and coddled children into a new academy. Only about 1 in every 100 kids will get the highly coveted spots at the Crystal Academy, and Holsinger follows four parents as they angle to give their kids the best chance possible.

"Everybody believes their kids are gifted on some level," Holsinger says. "So what is giftedness? ... How is it assessed? We all want the best for our kids, but we all may be confused in some ways about what that can be."

Interview Highlights

On his reaction to the college admissions scandal

[Actor] Felicity Huffman — her behavior might seem really out of proportion — it might seem that we would never do anything like that, but you could imagine that it was love that drove her ... it was a desire for her kids to succeed.

What she did was felonious — of course not all of us are committing felonies to try to get our kids into a good school — but there's a sense that parents will stop at nothing, and in The Gifted School I wanted to explore that dynamic. I wanted to think about the ways that all parents will push that envelope.

On whether the novel mirrors his own experience

The novel is set in a fictionalized town but it's loosely based on Boulder, Colo., which is where I taught for a number of years and that's where our kids were born. It's the kind of place where pressure parenting is the name of the game. I think from when our kids were young we really perceived that kind of culture of parental competitiveness and, yeah, I think it's inevitable that it affects the way you parent.

On the parents in the novel

Rose — who's the central protagonist of the novel — she's a pediatric neurologist, a very high powered scientist also a medical doctor. In her day job ... she thinks about children's brains, she thinks about child development. And so I wanted to think about the relationship between what she does in the lab, looking at brain cells, dissecting mice, and what she does at home — which is thinking very much about the intelligence of her daughter.

She has three close friends — one is Samantha Zellar who is a stay-at-home mom. She comes from a very wealthy family and she is the kind of model of privilege and is the kind of queen bee of their group.

There's another friend Azra who is a native Crystal-ite. She grew up there, she owns a kind of vintage/used clothing store in downtown Boulder. She is divorced from her ex-husband Beck who's kind of a Bernie Bro type. And they have two boys twins who are star soccer players.

And then the final of the four friends is Lauren. She's a widow — she has two kids: one is Xander who's a chess prodigy and the other is Tessa who is a troubled teen. She's just out of rehab. She's vlogging with her rehab buddies and you see those vlog posts as you read the novel.

On Rose jeopardizing her career – and more – in her effort to get her daughter into the academy

Not only that, but Rose also jeopardizes one of her closest friendships — in fact, several of her closest friendships. And one of the things I wanted to explore in the novel is that tight relationship between friendship and parenting and the conflict that those two can often present.

On kids absorbing their parents' anxiety

The kids in the gifted school are intensely anxious and one of the things that they're very anxious about is ... what their parents think of them. They want to succeed because their parents want them to succeed. The novel opens with what I tried to write as a very kind of dark suspenseful scene of ... [one of the kids ] taking an IQ test. A very — to her mother anyway — a very high-stakes IQ test. When the novel opens she's filling in a bubble sheet. And so I wanted to think about pressure from the ground up, from the pencil up.

On whether the kids actually want to go to this school

It seems like a fantastic opportunity — the parents are excited about it. They're excited about small class sizes, they're excited about what the next thing their kids can get might be. But, really, do the kids want to go? Do the kids want to take that IQ test? Do they want to put their admissions portfolios together? In that sense it goes to that larger theme of: What parents ask their kids to do that the kids might not be willing to do themselves.

Sophia Boyd and Samantha Balaban produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web. contributed to this story

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Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.