By Kathleen West
“It’s not that she shouldn’t have political beliefs, but really, are they all relevant to American Literature? Could she just spend some time talking about metaphors?”
I could not put his book down! It is kind of two parallel stories set in a wealthy and prestigious public school with many intersections between the two plot-lines mostly in the form of one parent. One of the two main characters is Isabelle Johnson, a committed and socially conscious teacher fighting to keep her job amid mounting criticism that the values she is trying to instill into her students do not match the values of the mostly conservative community. The other story is of Julia Abbott, an overly invested helicopter mom who wreaks havoc in her own life and the lives of her family by her crazed behavior.
They’d all witnessed Julia’s mania before, most recently after parent-teacher conferences when Julia had launched in on Tracy’s near-perfect GPA. “You have a B plus in English! How could you like that teacher so much when she’s ruining everything?”
In addition to her issues with Isabelle, her daughter Tracy’s beloved teacher, she also gets a little too invested in her son Alexander’s involvement in his high school play.
Stirring the pot is social media run amok or really just being normal.
There is a lot going on in this novel: many side-stories, themes, and lessons learned. It is told in multiple viewpoints in short “chapters” which in itself ratcheted up the tension and suspense that kept me turning the pages. It reminded me a lot of Big Little Lies with the multiple viewpoints and it’s plot centered around the parental politics of an affluent school. All of the students, parents, and teachers turned out to be multilayered and interesting. Even Juliet wasn’t completely heinous.
The main thing I loved about this book was how my opinion of Isabelle Johnson changed. At first, I loved her. But then I started to look at her with a more critical eye.
Mary smiled sadly. “Your aims are admirable, but the parents are concerned about ideas that they consider to be radical.” “Radical?” Isobel bristled. “Connecting literature we read in class to their own lives is radical?” … Even though she resented the accusation, she knew she needed to get a little radical to shake the kids out of their self-centeredness. That was the whole point of teaching in Liston Heights, the whole reason she’d allowed herself to leave her inner-city job. Her intention was to influence the kids who had the power to make big changes in society. Otherwise, what was she doing here? …“Stick to the curriculum.” She stood up and walked to the door. Mary left, and Isobel felt a coldness in her chest. Stick to the curriculum for whose benefit? Isobel thought. So they could all maintain the status quo? So the children of Liston Heights could move back to their suburb as adults and continue their lives in a bubble, never reaching beyond themselves?
“Well, everyone knows Isobel is a social justice educator.” She told Jamie at least monthly that “teaching for change” was every professional’s responsibility. “And within that identity,” Mary continued, “do you think that Isobel maintains an openness to students who might disagree with her positions?” Jamie considered. The honest answer was no, she knew. While Isobel enjoyed discussing controversial issues with students, she maintained an inflexible stance on many. “Isobel isn’t one to compromise her ideals.”
She is a very very good, kind, and generous person but her savior complex does not come from a healthy place.
Julia, the helicopter mom, just kept piling horror upon horror as I looked on in fascination. She was a runaway train almost to the very end. At around the 40% mark, I was surprised I wasn’t nearer the end because I couldn’t think what else she could possibly do to get herself into more trouble. I needn’t have worried.
*****A bit of a spoiler here*****
The book was very satisfying in that all of the characters ending up in a place that was better than it would have been if the two big messes hadn’t happened. If I have any criticism, it is that one character’s reclamation seemed to occur only because she had just finally exhausted herself.
June 22, 2020