The Hawthorne family looks like they have everything they could ever want. Father Gabe is a partner in a management consulting firm. Mother Nora is a very successful real estate agent in pricey Marin County. Oldest daughter Angela is her class' valedictorian and a phenomenal cross country runner. Middle child Cecily is passionate about Irish dancing. And baby of the family Maya is a pretty happy go lucky second grader. But life isn't everything it seems on the surface and as Angela applies to Harvard, the dream school she's been groomed for since toddlerhood, the cracks in the picture of perfection start to widen. Gabe has a secret at work that the company's newest intern, a predatory piece of work, threatens to expose. Worse, it's a secret he's kept even from Nora. Nora is completely overwhelmed with her job and the girls. A very important listing is about to expire and be pulled from her, she could be held accountable for something that was never disclosed on a multi-million dollar home she sold several years ago, and she's convinced that an accident that happened on her watch, an accident she never told Gabe about, could be the reason that Maya can't read yet. Angela is desperate to hold onto her number one class ranking, stooping to means she'd once never have considered and she can't even begin to imagine what will happen if she doesn't get into Harvard early admission. Cecily's dancing is suddenly slightly off and she's dwelling on some pretty morbid stuff for an elementary school kid. And of course, Maya can't read.
None of the characters have shared their burdens with the others, giving the novel an ever increasing sense of secrets kept, intentional omissions, and little white lies all of which threaten to destroy the characters and this life they've built. Despite the reader knowing or guessing all of the secrets, still the rising tide of guilt and poor decisions slowly and inexorably strangles the reader as the pages turn. Moore has really captured the panic and nausea, the stress and pressure of applying to college. Your heart can't help but go out to the over-achieving Angela who is so focused on the things that she thinks will make her application stand out that she has no time to enjoy herself or be a kid. Everything in her life has to be a means to an end and she can't afford to slip, ever. Every member of this family can feel the tension and stress filling their home with increasing desperation. And that's no way to live. Too wrapped up in their own personal dramas to admit to each other the difficulties they are facing, the terrible choices they've made, or the real future they want, it is still clear that these characters do care for each other and care deeply. Moore's creative use of SAT words throughout Angela's narrative sections helps highlight the way that everything about the college application process and the pressure to perform and know everything pervades the high school senior's entire life. Gabe's fears at work and Nora's out of kilter work home life balance serve to make them incredibly sympathetic and realistic. The story alternates perspectives between all of the Hawthornes except Maya, giving the reader a complete picture of the family that the characters themselves don't have. This makes the difficulties each character faces that much more poignant to a reader who can possibly relate to the underlying motivations of each. The narrative pacing is taut and increases consistently until the end when everything unravels, as it must. After the tension of the bulk of the book, the ending is a bit easy but it is a hopeful antidote to the stress that precedes it. A thoroughly enjoyable cautionary tale about self-imposed pressures consuming us, stealing our joy in life, and making us willing to deviate from who we know ourselves to be (or to not even have the chance to find out who we are), this will make you re-evaluate your life, your goals, and the expectations you place not only on yourself but on those you love.