Home Author Author Michelle Richmond’s “Wonder Test” was far-fetched – until college admissions scandal

Author Michelle Richmond’s “Wonder Test” was far-fetched – until college admissions scandal

When author Michelle Richmond moved to South Bay, she noticed a special fixation among parents and schools with the test results. Photo: Nick Elliott

When news of the college admissions scandal first broke in March 2019, novelist Michelle Richmond had just completed a draft of her eighth novel, “The Wonder Test,” and had spent three years immersed in the subject of over- involvement and parental rights in Silicon Valley. .

Richmond, who grew up in Alabama, noticed when she moved to South Bay in 2009 with her husband and 5-year-old son a special fixation among parents and schools with test scores. He planted the seed of an idea for his entertaining new book that depicts status-seeking suburban parents willing to do just about anything – even commit heinous crimes – to ensure their children’s success and survival. their property value, linked to test scores from their public schools, remain stratospheric.

“The cheating scandal horrified me, but it also confirmed some of the beliefs behind the premise of the book,” Richmond told The Chronicle.

“The Wonder Test,” released Tuesday, July 6, is a fast-paced thriller that deals with these topical issues, as well as a compassionate portrayal of an FBI profiler, Lina, whose spying sense is based on Richmond’s own husband, an intelligence officer.

The novel begins as Lina, mourning the death of her husband, and her precocious son, Rory, move to the fictional town of Greenfield, resembling Atherton, where children learn from specialists and motivational coaches to be “versions.” better, faster and smarter. of themselves, ”writes Richmond.

Instead of regular classes, Greenfield’s teens spend hours each day preparing for the Wonder Test, a supercharged standardized test with abstruse categories and intractable riddle-like questions.

When Lina discovers that three students from Greenfield at Rory’s new high school were kidnapped just before the exam, only to reappear a week later frail and traumatized, her years of counterintelligence come in handy in solving the mystery.

Richmond said she remembered the editors’ disbelief that her plot was too far-fetched when she submitted her “Wonder Test” manuscript. Yet months later, when wealthy parents – including more than a dozen in the Bay Area and celebrities Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, among others – were criminally charged with attempting to purchase their children in college, Richmond’s book seemed to speak directly to the moment.

“When fiction shows how weird things can get in real life, it helps us see that nothing is really impossible even though it hasn’t happened yet,” said Richmond.

Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, have pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges for paying $ 500,000 in a scheme to get their daughters admitted to the University of Southern California. Photo credit: Joseph Prezioso / AFP / Getty Images / TNS 2019

Q: You told two separate stories in this novel: a review of competitive Silicon Valley parents and also a spy thriller. Which idea came first?

A: The initial impetus for the book was 12 years ago when we moved to Silicon Valley. I noticed very quickly that there was this competition that I was not used to, and often it was about the children rather than the parents. There was also a lot of testing in local public schools, and fundraising often referred to test results. I decided to take these ideas to the extreme.

I knew from the start that Lina’s character would be an FBI agent like my husband. I have lived the life of an FBI spouse my entire adult life, but I never wrote anything about it.

Q: Given the secrecy surrounding your husband’s work, were you able to glean enough details about the FBI’s work from him to make Lina credible, or did you do any outside research?

A: I haven’t done any research outside of my life. If you have a partner in any career, you absorb a lot in your life together. My husband is always my first reader, and if something is wrong or if there is any jargon that I am wrong, he will correct it.

Q: Lina and Rory are moving from New York to California, and their perspective as outsiders helps them see the nonsense and excesses of Silicon Valley. You grew up in the South and moved here as an adult. Did this perspective also help you see things clearly?

A: Absolutely. I grew up working class in Mobile, Alabama. I went to a huge public high school and very diverse, and the way I grew up, it just wasn’t competitive. I feel for the students now because there is pressure on the kids to be good at everything, so much is expected of them, and it’s crazy.

Michelle Richmond’s “Test of Wonders”. Photo: Atlantic Grove

Q: Did you have fun writing the Wonder Test questions that begin each chapter?

A: Yes, it was pure pleasure writing test questions that were supposed to be impossible. When my son was still in elementary school, we laughed at the dinner table while doing his homework together. The family joke about his math has become: what is the girth of the brunette?

Something seemed so there, and it made you wonder, “What’s the value of trying to do these extremely complicated procedures?” It’s maddening for the parents, and it must be totally frustrating for the kids.

Q: Have you seen any positive changes among parents in the Bay Area since the admissions scandal?

A: I think the pandemic has really had an effect and there has been a reset for the families who have been fortunate enough to get out of it safely. I have the impression that the parents are relieved. They were sad to see their children isolated, but relieved from the intensity break.

Not all of the kids who were supposed to take their SAT or PSAT did, and no one seems to care too much. I might be overly optimistic, but I’m curious to see if there will be a long term effect if people reassess what’s really important.

“The test of wonders”
By Michelle Richmond
(Atlantic Monthly Press; 448 p .; $ 26)

Michelle Richmond in conversation with Katie Crouch: Virtual book launch. 6 p.m. Wednesday July 7. Free. Registration required to access the feed at www.booksmith.com.

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