There’s really very little that The Roaring Orchards School for Troubled Teens, the setting of Dan Josefson’s That’s Not a Feeling (Oct. 2, Soho), has in common with The Bradley School of Bronwen Hruska’s Accelerated (Oct. 2, Pegasus), where every pupil reads well past grade level. The rural isolation of Roaring Orchards seems worlds away from Bradley’s Upper East Side; the defeated, largely absent parents who send their children off to Josefson’s therapeutic boarding school couldn’t behave more differently from the overinvolved parents on Bradley’s pushy, entitled alumni board.
The upshot, of course, is that these schools aren’t all that different. The dark secret at the heart of Bradley’s success is pharmaceutical, a cabinet in the basement filled with the same stuff a place like Roaring Orchards doesn’t bother to hide — Ritalin, Adderall and lithium. And if the external specifics of Feeling’s comic coming-of-age story contrast with thriller-flavored Accelerated’s parental nightmare, both books share specific anxieties: authority and its arbitrary exercise, and the ways apparently free choices trap you into unwilling consent.
In Feeling, Roaring Orchards is an ideal place for authority anxieties; when difficult, suicidal Benjamin is dropped off there (for a tour, his parents tell him), its headmaster and founder is withdrawing into illness, leaving behind a structure of rules nobody understands.
Benjamin’s struggle to navigate the emotional-growth-education mushiness of the system is clever, but it’s also comfortable, drawing on a vocabulary of recovery memoirs and cuckoo’s nests. So when Gary, one of the low-functioning New Boys, starts making up stories about his sex addiction in order to move forward in “the process,” the outlandishness of his farm-animal stories is amusing, but there’s no shock in the symbiosis between cynical patient and needy therapist.
Where Josefson surprises, however, is in his earnestness. There’s Tidbit, one of the Alternative Girls (better than New, but not a Regular Kid) whose frustration with not being able to move forward under Roaring Orchards’ arbitrary rules keeps her lashing out; there’s Ellie, one of the Dorm Parents who is doubtful at best about the system, but who immediately lapses into passive-aggressive jargon about feelings when her boyfriend hits a rough patch.
In fact, it’s poor, trapped Ellie who best resembles the characters in Accelerated, a smoother, tighter, more carefully plotted exorcism of the same anxieties. Accelerated sticks close to a set of parents whose primary-school kids are experiencing the first pressures to perform, but they’re shown to be just as thoroughly cowed and co-opted as any Roaring Orchards inmate.
Hruska shows us Bradley mainly through the eyes of tabloid editor Sean Benning, beholden to his estranged wife’s father for his son’s tuition and pressured to pursue any advantage — including evaluating and medicating Toby for ADHD despite not seeing any symptoms himself. Sean’s sister jokes: “His advanced artwork is taking time from his advanced math, so they’d like to give him extra help and maybe throw in some study drugs to get him up to speed.” After a classmate succumbs to a “peanut allergy” and Toby collapses, Sean begins to tease out a conspiracy and Accelerated takes on the outlines of a thriller.
That structure is fortunate, even if it leads to a couple of cardboard villains and a quick, pat ending. A more character-driven story might have forced Accelerated to confront Sean’s inconsistencies, and, well, the sex. (Not only does he sleep with his estranged wife and his son’s teacher, but Accelerated opens, bizarrely, with a tryst with the mother of one of his son’s classmates in a fundraising-party bathroom — a weird choice for an introduction.) Instead, Accelerated shows how Sean is manipulated, via false choices that play on his insecurities, into surrendering his sense of what’s right for his family.