3 New Books About the Inner Workings of Elite Schools
Elite academies tend to be pressure cookers that push together the smart, talented, and privileged. Depending on the institution, they test one’s mettle in ways that can be beneficial and world-broadening, or harmful and soul-destroying. They’re hotbeds of criticism, and garner constant accusations of unfairness about who’s “supposed” to be there and who isn’t, and who succeeds and who doesn’t. Despite the polished veneer, what goes on behind the scenes is not always as perfect as one might think. In this week’s book club, three new novels about real and fictional elite schools show their inner workings, their messes and misfits, and the long-term effects they have far beyond when their graduates walk out the front door.
1. A Wonderful Stroke of Luck by Ann Beattie ($25): “You went to that fancy school where everybody played to everybody else, so you came out thinking the whole world wanted to be your audience.” Ben goes to Bailey Academy, a prestigious boarding school for rich students, brilliant students, and for rich and brilliant students “who’ve screwed up.” Ben’s Honor Society membership puts him in contact with a host of other rarified, quirky students, and their instructor, the always-questioning, sometimes-insufferable Pierre LaVerdere. Then 9/11 happens, and everything changes; Ben and his friends graduate, go to a host of elite colleges, and Ben finds himself completely adrift, with no clear idea of who he is.
“The box of candles fell and broke. That meant nothing, really, in a world where no one would ever care about minor breakage again – or at least that was the way it seemed. They might never know, though – as LaVerdere had later remarked on graduation day – whether, if the world hadn’t appreciably changed on them, leaving Bailey would still have resulted in a backlash of regret. It was another one of his questions that, as he himself pointed out, hinted strongly at its answer by being posed. Or, as Benson Whitacre came to think, he was insidiously cueing them to be adolescents instead of adults, because that way he’d remain in their minds. Once they’d graduated from Bailey, what bonds would make them keep their friendships, their infatuations, their animosities? Would some still tell one another their dreams, or would they become embarrassed by such obvious symbols? They’d be going out into the real world – a place LaVerdere, the person many of them respected most, thought was only another cultural concept…”
LaVerdere’s influence extends far past the time he spends with his charges; as they grow up, they seemingly seek to win his approval by overthinking every aspect of their lives. Ben spends the next several years finding it impossible to make solid connections, as he attempts to deal with the death of his father, a series of terrible relationships, and a tendency to upend his life and career every time it seems to be going well. LaVerdere’s eventual return and a series of disquieting revelations about his involvement in Ben’s circle have Ben questioning once more the choices, or the lack thereof, he’s made in his life; it seems like Bailey is for bright adults who screw up too.
2. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi ($18): “Their own school was special, intended to cream off the most talented at selected pursuits from the regular places all over the city and even beyond, to the outlying desolate towns. It had been a daring experiment ten years before and was now an elite institution, recently moved to an expensive new building full of ‘world class,’ ‘professional’ facilities. The school was meant to set apart, to break bonds that were better off broken, confined to childhood. Sarah and David accepted this as the sort of poignant rite their exceptional lives would require. Lavished, perhaps, extra tenderness on the vestigial boyfriend and girlfriend in the process of casting them off. The school was named the Citywide Academy for the Performing Arts, but they and all the students and their teachers called it, rather pompously, CAPA.”
In 1982, at their Fame-like performing arts high school in an unnamed southern city, 15-year-old Sarah and David have a passionate romance. Neither of them really understands what this means, and how vulnerable they are to manipulation. It seems like everyone has a stake in what’s going on, especially their provocative and harshly charismatic teacher, Mr. Kingsley, who spends the year putting the class through a series of questionable trust exercises, where the concept of consent is murky. After they consummate their relationship in the summer between freshman and sophomore year, they return in the fall to have things fall apart dramatically, and to learn that mixing the personal and professional in the arts can be very painful.
A visiting theatre (Mr. Kingsley insists that if you spell it “theater,” you will fail his class) troupe from England pulls Sarah out of her increasing isolation, but also thrusts her and her friend Karen into uneasy relationships with two of its members. Years later, the grown-up characters look back on their memories of those tortured high school days and wonder how much of it was actually true. The book itself becomes a trust exercise, with three parts that each call into question the veracity of what came before. Pulitzer Prize-finalist Choi asks us about the nature of memory, the narratives we create for ourselves, and the way we shape our lives.
3. Lost and Wanted by Nell Freudenberger ($27): “In our era at Harvard, there were various, distinct types: the international students; the children of immigrants; the scattering of anonymous valedictorians from all across the country, like me, the only ones from their high schools. And then there were the kids from New York: the rich ones, nearly all white (with some Saudi royalty thrown in), whose fathers and grandfathers had gone to Harvard, who belonged to the final clubs and the Hasty Pudding…I would have said then that Charlie and I – an upper-middle-class black girl from Brookline and a work-study white science nerd from Pasadena – didn’t fit into any category, and that’s why we were eventually drawn to each other. Now I think that the twenty-some eighteen-year-olds in the room that day must have been equally uncategorizable, each with their secret, disjunctive parts. I think that the boxes we used to sort them were nothing more than comforting fictions, like Bohr’s atomic model, which is so pretty and so sensible – its particles orbiting the nucleus like a miniature sun and planets – that it’s still the definitive representation. This is in spite of its incompatibility with everything we now know about the very tiniest pieces into which the world can be broken.”
Helen Clapp and Charlie Boyce were best friends at Harvard in the 1990s — surprising, perhaps, because the two of them were so different in class, race, coast, and interests. Both, however, were ambitious, brilliant women who carved their way into male-dominated professions. Helen defined her life by the way it related to physics and became a celebrated physics professor and semi-recluse at MIT, a single mother by choice, and published author of books that explain her theories on five-dimensional spacetime in layman’s terms. Charlie became a Hollywood screenwriter, got married, and had a family. In the past years, they drifted apart, but lately, Helen has started to receive calls from Charlie’s phone. This would be nice, except the calls were made in the days after Charlie’s death from lupus.
Helen’s background makes her open to all sorts of universal possibilities about time, and the messages she receives from Charlie’s number certainly seem like they’re written in Charlie’s unique voice. Is this a ghostly communication? If not, who has taken the phone, and why have they chosen Helen to receive the messages? Meanwhile, things become more complicated when her college boyfriend Neel Jonnal comes back to town with a fiancée and a shot at a Nobel Prize, and so do Charlie’s husband and daughter, staying with Charlie’s parents. Helen reevaluates her life’s path, explaining the nature of grief and choice through her understanding of physics. Looking at their past and relationship also forces Helen to confront things she didn’t think of at the time, such as the nature of her white privilege, the struggle they both faced as women, and all the times she didn’t really know what her friend was going through.
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