Wednesday, October 12, 2016

School of Fear

School of Fear
by Gitty Daneshvari
Recommended Ages: 12+

Madeleine of London, U.K. is terrified of spiders and insects. She wears a mosquito-netting veil and a belt lined with bug spray at all times. Lulu of Providence, R.I., has a disabling fear of small, windowless spaces. She would rather handcuff herself to the landing gear of an airplane than ride the elevator at her city's Air and Space Museum. Theo of New York, N.Y., is obsessed with death. He memorizes mortality statistics and can't stand not knowing the "dead or alive" status of everyone he cares about. Garrison of Miami, Fla. is perhaps the most "together" of the four kids, unless someone mentions a body of water from swimming-pool size up. Then he falls completely to pieces. They all meet one summer outside the bus station in Farmington, Mass., on the last leg of their journey to a school they hope will help them take back control of their lives - a "referral only" establishment that promises to succeed where everything else they have tried has failed - a zealously guarded secret place called the School of Fear.

Then they find out the School of Fear is a nightmarishly weird, decaying mansion inhabited by a batty, way-past-her-prime beauty queen and her devoted, but mostly blind, manservant Schmidty. Mrs. Wellington subjects the kids to a ridiculous regime of tips for beauty pageant contestants. She exposes them to stunningly bad smells, an indoor polo ground with Astroturf and stuffed horses, a "fearnasium" where they practice imagining themselves exposed to their worst fears, food that tastes like maggoty cheese, and the awful spectacle of herself without her make-up or her wig on. She subjects them to an unrelenting barrage of passive-aggressive sarcasm, the company of four cats who (she claims) have been ingeniously trained to act entirely untrained, the affections of an overweight bulldog named Macaroni, and the pernicious influence of a sneaky, grasping, compulsively gambling lawyer.

The four kids get on each other's nerves. Their personalities bristle against each other. They bicker about Maddy's bug spray fetish, about Theo's non-stop histrionics, about Lulu's eye-rolling meanness, you name it. But as much as they differ among themselves, they all agree Mrs. Wellington's "treatment" is unlikely to help them overcome their fears, even the tiniest bit. And there's little chance of them escaping, since the School of Fear is situated on a plateau above an impenetrable forest.

Then... nah, I'm not going to tell you. Let's just say stuff happens that forces these self-absorbed, argumentative pre-teens to work together as a team, to think about someone besides themselves, and to begin - just begin - to face their worst fears. More detail than that would spoil their whimsically unexpected (even if, on a basic level, somewhat predictable), hilarious and exciting adventure.

See what I mean?
Gitty Daneshvari, an Iranian-American author whose supermodel-perfect headshot looks like an avatar someone created for a first-person-shooter computer game, has me convinced of one thing: her ability to write crack-me-up comedy. I first got this impression when I read The League of Unexceptional Children, whose sequel, Get Smart-ish, I look forward to reading. This book confirmed it, with a rhythmic groove of situational funniness that, several times, made me close the book to have my laugh out. It also has characters whose interplay gels nicely, with pointed dialogue and dueling personality quirks. I heartily plan to borrow the local library's copies of the two sequels to this book, Class Is Not Dismissed! and The Final Exam.

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