Review: MASTER CLASS by Christina Dalcher
Also by this author: Vox
Published by BERKLEY on April 21, 2020
Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction, Dystopian
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
Christina Dalcher’s latest novel, Master Class, is a terrifying exploration of what can happen when those in power choose to implement radical policy changes, but at such a slow and gradual pace, that the citizens don’t realize what a radical and dangerous path they’re being led down until it’s too late.
What makes Dalcher’s novel particularly frightening is that although it’s technically set in a dystopian world, the world is not that far removed from where we as a society actually are. The whole time I was reading, I kept thinking. “Huh. I could see the current administration here trying to pull this kind of sneaky stunt.” It’s that realness, that plausibility of something that should be totally implausible, that makes Master Class such a gripping read. I found myself hardcore cheering on the protagonist, not just because I love to cheer on those scrappy underdog characters, but also because I just needed that reassurance, with such a realistic plot, that someone would in fact stand up to fight back against dangerous and radical policies.
I have to admit that it did take me a while to warm up to the protagonist, Elena Fairchild, though. Her actions and choices early on in the story, combined with some flashbacks of her young adult year, paint a pretty ugly picture and I had some real issues relating to her. The radical policy changes that are the subject matter of Master Class revolve around education, specifically segregating lower performing students and sending them off to out-of-state boarding schools/institutions. Elena is a teacher at one of the elite schools where top-performing students attend, and she is also the wife of one of those in power who is specifically pushing forward this agenda. Elena’s eldest child is excelling in the elite level school system and so Elena is very complacent about the way things are, even as she watches other children shamed if they drop in performances and end up packed up and sent away to these other schools.
It is when Elena’s youngest child, who struggles in school, fails a test and gets shipped off to a school hundreds of miles away from home that Elena finally opens her eyes and we see a different side of her. She starts to notice some of her own students getting shipped off and she can’t understand why. They were performing so well that even a failed test or two shouldn’t have dropped their scores low enough to take them to the lowest tier. Elena starts to suspect something more sinister is afoot and makes it her mission to get to the bottom of it and to save her daughter, even if it means taking down her own husband in the process. That was the moment when I really started to cheer on Elena, this redemption arc of sorts. She’s smart, resourceful, and she is a Momma Bear to her core. Do not mess with her babies. Or anyone else’s babies for that matter.
I don’t want to go into anymore details for fear of spoilers, so I’m just going to say that it’s a wild and, at times, frightening, ride as Elena digs deeper to find out what has been going on right under her own nose. Dalcher does a wonderful job of gradually ratcheting up the tension and suspense until everything just boils over.
Master Class is a compelling read that really took me on an emotional roller coaster. I felt such rage at those who were coming up with these horrid educational policies, frustration at the parents who just sat by and accepted the way things were, sympathy for those who didn’t, and finally, heartbroken for the children themselves who were being hurt by them. When I read the author’s note and learned that Dalcher based her novel on real-life events that actually happened here in America, I got angry all over again. If you’re looking for an eye opening read about what can happen when people let their guard down and blindly accept that those in power have their best interests at heart, Master Class is the book you’re looking for.