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Monday, February 17, 2020

Big Little Lies-Ish Debut Entertaining and "Discussable"

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Isobel Johnson considers it her duty to challenge the entitled thinking of the students she teaches at wealthy Liston Heights High.  Sure, her liberal methods occasionally garner a raised eyebrow from the administration or the occasional criticism from a tightly-wound parent, but that just means they're effective, right?  Still, when Isobel receives an anonymous voicemail accusing her of going too far, she's surprised.  She's even more stunned to learn she's become the target of a smear campaign that threatens not just Isobel's position at the school, but also her entire teaching career.

Julia Abbott will do anything for her two kids, including buying her son a coveted role in the upcoming high school musical.  After all the volunteer hours she's put in over the years, she figures she's owed a few favors now and then.  When one of her helicopter mommy maneuvers lands Julia in a hot spot thanks to a video gone viral, however, she discovers she can no longer bribe her way out of trouble.  This time, the consequences of her actions will have far-reaching effects on everyone in her family.

As the two women deal with their separate, but intertwining battles, they will have to decide when to back down, when to stand up, and when to hurl themselves into the ring and fight with everything they've got.

In the vein of Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies, Kathleen West's debut takes a sharp, cutting look at the politics, privilege, and power plays that parents wield in order to push their children to the front of the pack in a competitive, high-pressure school environment.  Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes shows just how far some parents will go and how little administrators and teachers can—and will—do to stop them.  While Julia's actions seem outrageous, West, a veteran middle and high school teacher, insists it's par for the course.  Unbelievable.  In promotional material for the book, West says her aim was to produce a "discussable" novel.  She has certainly done that, while also creating a story that's engrossing and entertaining.  With short, punchy chapters; interesting, recognizable characters; and bright, snappy prose; the book is a quick, easy read.  However, the questions it asks are not so simple:  What is a parent's role in their child's education?  How involved should they be with homework, extracurricular activities, and teacher/student conflicts?  How far would you go to help your child achieve?  Questions like these will certainly lead to lively book club discussions.  

Personally, I liked Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes but didn't totally love it.  While most of the adult characters are relatable, none of them are particularly likable. I did enjoy the role reversal of the adults behaving badly, letting the kids shine as examples of honesty and fairness.  I also liked that the novel kept me reading fast and furious to find out what would happen next.  Overall, I enjoyed it.

(Readalikes:  Reminds me of Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for language (a handful of F-bombs, plus milder expletives)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes from the generous folks at Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you!
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