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“The Wonder Test: A Novel” By: Michelle Richmond

“The Wonder Test: A Novel”

Author: Michelle Richmond

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Pages: 427

Price: $26.00 (Hardcover)

Characters Face Severe Test in Michelle Richmond’s New Novel

For years, maybe all my life, disputes about testing have been in the news. Should schools teach “for” the test? Do standardized tests provide a better indicator of success than grades in individual classes? Are tests biased in favor of one group or another? Should tests like the ACT or College Boards be required or voluntary? (Recently the argument has swung towards voluntary or not required. We’ll see.)

What about the GRE, what about the LSAT or the MCAT?

Well forget all these. The “Wonder Test,” subject of Michelle Richmond’s new book, is a brand new and so far fictional animal.

Forget about asking students to perform mathematical operations, or remember dates or comprehend a passage of prose.

The Wonder Test is meta.

The possible questions involve: Analogies, Ethicalities, Diagrams and Analyses, Theories of Global Patterns and Future Functionalities.

Here are some of the questions Richmond has created for the test:

"Genetically modified fruit will either save or destroy the planet. What makes this statement true, false, or irrelevant?"

“True or false: Circles are more efficient than triangles.”

“Compare and contrast comparison and contrast.”

“Assuming the universe is always expanding, at what point does it become less likely that you will find your lost keys by continuing to look for them? Diagram and discuss.”

Doing well on this test guarantees admission into America’s most prestigious colleges and universities.

 When Lina Connerly and her teenage son, Rory, move from New York City to excessively affluent and lovely Greenfield, California, near Silicon Valley, this test is the obsession of the local high school.

Lina and Rory are there because Lina’s husband, Fred, died suddenly and her father followed soon after, and Lina has inherited her father’s home.

They plan to live in Greenfield a short while and recover from their griefs and losses, then sell.

To her great surprise, her house, nice enough, but no palace, like all the houses in Greenfield is worth a fortune, millions.

Almost immediately, a local realtor, Harris Ojai, drives up in his Bentley and inquires whether she intends to sell. Ojai is a kind of very modern plastic surgery freak.

“His face is such an unusual amalgam of heavily edited features, it’s impossible to place.”

 One local theory is that “he’s trying to look like all different ethnicities and nationalities to attract more clients.”

Realtors have been for about a century the butt of jokes in American literature. Most famous perhaps is Sinclair Lewis’ pompous booster George F. Babbitt.

Lewis writes, “… he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes, nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”

The David Mamet play “Glengarry Glen Ross” brings the subject up to date, demonstrating the utter amorality and Darwinian viciousness in a Chicago real estate firm in 1992.

We soon learn a key connection between the local housing market and the Wonder Test: Greenfield students score highest in the entire country. People are mad to live there.

Obsessive and distasteful but harmless, so far, one might say, but then some students at the school go missing, are kidnapped for no obvious reason, returned alive but impaired. Lina is curious, then personally involved and becomes the fierce, outraged mother.

She sets out to find the connections between The Test, the high school, the real estate market and the kidnapped children and she is just the woman to do it. Lina is on leave from the FBI. She’s a profiler and counter-intelligence specialist, skilled at tradecraft, hand-to-hand combat, firearms, ocean swimming, fluent in French and Russian and can call in tech support from D.C.

She’s a kind of new Wonder Woman.

At this point the novel morphs from satirical literary fiction to smooth, intelligent and fairly violent thriller.

Lina sorts through the grotesquely greedy and eccentric characters and finds the really vile ones, amoral and twisted. They need killing and Lina obliges.

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors. 

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.