From Christina Dalcher, the best-selling author of Vox comes another dystopian novel!
The US has adopted a caste system where your (and your descendants’) future will depend on your Q score – a standardized measurement. What you score in your monthly tests at school determines what kind of education you will receive. If you score above nine out of ten, you’ll get to keep attending or go to a silver elite school. But if you score below eight, you’ll be shipped off to a yellow state school far away from home where children get to see their parents only four days a year. Your results will also have a cascading effect on your life as you grow up, from deciding where you will end up working to where you will stand in the queue while waiting to buy groceries. Children who are not good at STEM subjects, but brilliant at other things need not even bother – it’s nothing but downhill for them, and the same goes to differently-abled children. No such thing as catching a break in this vicious system if you are less than “perfect”!
It is in this crazed environment we find our protagonist, Elena Fairchild, who is the wife of Malcolm, deputy secretary of education. Elena and Malcolm are high-school “sweethearts,” and what is happening in the US is a result of Malcolm’s policies. When they were in high school, the studious Elena had been picked on by the popular mean girls. However, when Malcolm’s proposals went through for cafeteria lunch to be served according to test results, that had allowed the bullied Elena to become the bully! At the time, Elena had believed in and cheered Malcolm’s effort to implement a new social order. But since giving birth to Freddie, their younger daughter, Elena has been disillusioned with the system. Unlike Anne, their older daughter with perfect grades, Freddie is an “average” kid who is barely keeping her head above water at school. So when Freddie scores below eight at a test and gets sent to a state school in another state, Elena will have to do everything in her power to bring her daughter back home.
The first thing I noticed as soon as I began reading Master Class is how similar its plotline is to Vox. Both protagonists are married to high-ranking government officials, their marriages are unhappy, and they both have a child in need of saving. These inescapable parallels made me worry Master Class‘s ending will be predictable, but thankfully, it was not! Dalcher’s writing style is simple and straight-forward. Usually, I can read books like that in a couple of sittings. But here, I had to put Master Class down multiple times. Even though I appreciated where the story was heading, I didn’t like the two main characters. Elena is supposedly a very smart person, but bullying aside, I found it difficult to sympathize with a woman who had turned down a decent, kind man because he wasn’t a genius, to marry a “smart” douchebag! Malcolm, of course, is portrayed as the root of all evil with no redeemable characteristics, so every time I read a scene with him in it, I could feel my blood boiling!
Even with these quibbles, I’m glad I read Master Class because it shows how a ludicrous system like Q score testing can become central to a part of a selection process aimed at weeding out the “unsavory” (low Q scorers, immigrants, LGBTQ+, poor — you get the picture) from society. In the story, at least, some people like Elena turn a blind eye to what’s happening believing they and their genius kids are “untouchable,” until it becomes their problem. Also, when the government starts sterilizing low Q scoring individuals, it shows how eugenics could come into play in a situation like, even though it may seem far-fetched.
The exploration of the history of the eugenics movement in America is what I loved about this novel. I think most of our minds go to Nazi Germany whenever we think/ talk about eugenics. Eugenics that was practiced in America rarely gets mentioned in public forums, and I didn’t know about any of the sterilization programs that were conducted in the US until I watched the documentary film No más Bebés early this year. (I highly recommend the film. It is about the Latina women who were sterilized in the late 1960s to early 1970s in Los Angeles. These women – most of them who didn’t speak English – had gone to Los Angeles County Hospital to give birth, and had been forced to sign consent forms for sterilization which were in English. It was gut-wrenching to hear these women speak. And infuriating to watch the doctors who performed the sterilizations yapping about how the lawsuit that was brought against them, later on, tarnished their reputations (The judge found the doctors not guilty, by the way – “He conveyed that the procedure was not objectionable if a physician believed that a tubal ligation could improve a perceived overpopulation problem, as long as said physician did not try to “overpower the will of his patients.” 🙄) Master Class specifically touches on Human Betterment Foundation, Fitter Family Contests, and the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ role in eugenics and this novel is well worth a read because, as Dalcher puts it, “Patriotism does not require turning a blind eye to the darker chapters of our country’s history; if anything, the opposite.”
Note: Many thanks to Berkeley for sending me an ARC of Master Class via NetGalley.