High school can be so tough. There’s the jockeying for status. The fear of missing out. The bullying.
I’m not talking about the students.
The friction in “Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes” is between the adults in the fictional Minneapolis suburb of Liston Heights, where the parents are moneyed, the children are ambitious and the houses have four-car (!) garages. (A reader is free to divine the burg of which author Kathleen West speaks.) Chief among them is tightly wound alpha mom Julia Abbott, who’s trying to elevate her middle-of-the-pack kids to the upper echelon by any means necessary.
This includes donating a chunk of change for the drama department’s costume shop, the better to secure a plum role in the next play for her son, a good kid of only modest talent. A quid pro quo, as it were. So invested is Julia in this endeavor that she can’t bear to wait for a text from her son — she runs over to the school to see the posted cast list for herself. Her overenthusiastic response creates a disturbance that reverberates throughout the book, fueled by a viral Instagram video that makes her persona non grata even in her own home.
If the parents are out of control, the teachers are paranoid and insecure. English teacher Isobel Johnson is a student favorite but has reason to fear for her job after complaints are lodged about her “ultraliberal” agenda. Sure, she applies “Queer Theory and Sexual Binaries” to an examination of “The Great Gatsby” — only, she rationalizes, because she feels her influence is needed, in this rarefied atmosphere, to introduce these pampered kids to the real world. But does the threat to her position come from parents and students, or fellow teachers? How well does she really know the denizens of the staff lounge?
Feeding the frenzy surrounding both Julia and Isobel is the mysterious, toxic Facebook page “Inside Liston,” billed as a members-only “Behind-the-Scenes Look for Parents Who Need to Know.” Mother and teacher find themselves targets with little recourse and even less support from the largely ineffectual men in their lives (including the hapless, blowing-with-the-wind principal). Absurdly, the Facebook fiasco serves to bind the two together, however uneasily.
“Minor Dramas” is a biting, oh-no-she-didn’t commentary on the age-old pressures of academia, amplified by modern-day social media. Lest you think the whole scenario seems over the top, look no further than the Hollywood-adjacent Operation Varsity Blues, a true story of helicopter parenting and over-compliant teachers gone horribly wrong. This book might be fiction, but you can bet it’s all happening right here in “Liston Heights.”
Cynthia Dickison is a designer at the Star Tribune. 612-673-4639
Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes
By: Kathleen West.
Publisher: Berkley, 377 pages, $26.
Events: 7 p.m. Feb. 4, Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Av. S., Mpls.; 6:30 p.m. Feb. 6, Scout & Morgan Books, Cambridge, Minn.; 7 p.m. March 23, Literature Lovers' Night Out, Excelsior, $20, and 7 p.m. March 24, Literature Lovers' Night Out, Stillwater, $15, tickets for both at lit-lovers.com/events.html