Title: The Wonder Test
Author: Michelle Richmond
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication date: July 6, 2021
One Sentence Summary: After her father and husband pass away, FBI agent Lina moves herself and her teenage son to her father’s home in Northern California, but the neighborhood is overly obsessed with something all high school students take: the Wonder Test.
The Wonder Test has an interesting premise, but I felt it was overly ambitious, tried too hard to be brilliant, and skirted around the really interesting suburbany politics. What could have been an intriguing suburban thriller turned out to be more focused on getting an FBI agent who had started questioning herself back into the saddle, so to speak. I was disappointed it felt more tangentially related to the Wonder Test than anything else, and more interested in making the case far flung so it could showcase all of Lina’s FBI skills. There were some interesting things going on, but most of it fell flat for me.
After her father and husband both pass away within a relatively short time frame, FBI agent Lina Connerly makes a mistake on one of her cases and takes a leave of absence, ostensibly to clear out her father’s home in an exclusive neighborhood of Northern California. She takes her teenage son, Rory, with her, enrolling him in the local high school.
But this high school is not a normal high school. Literally everything about it revolves around something called the Wonder Test. There’s also the fact that some students have mysteriously vanished, only to reappear as a shell of themselves, but relatively unharmed. Lina is suspicious, so, after a random encounter, suggests her son meet a French girl at his school.
Rory and Caroline become fast friends, but the test is looming over their heads. When another student vanishes, Lina is ready to hop on the trail, certain there’s something devious going on at the school.
I so wanted to like The Wonder Test. The description struck my mom heart as my kids will one day be high school students subjected to those dreaded state tests. Of course, the Wonder Test is nothing like those, so I was curious about it and how it tied into mysterious student disappearances and reappearances.
Unfortunately, it felt less about the test and more about getting Lina’s mojo back. After a screw up, she’s feeling uncertain of herself and her instincts, never mind the fact it happened right after her husband died. So, in the middle of the school year, she packs up her teen and carts them both across the country. She seems to be in something of a waiting place, not really sure of what she’s doing. But, when a young cop gets wind of her living there, he drops by and drops the case of the students in her lap. Unofficially. (The local police force is barely dropped in.) I wish there had been more push and pull between Lina and whether or not she should pursue the case, but she seemed quite ready to jump in with both feet and use all the resources available to her. It made this book feel more like it was all about Lina instead of the case.
Rory was something of a saving grace to this book. Even as a teen, he’s headstrong and stubborn with an amazing moral compass. He’s so well-adjusted it’s almost bizarre, but he felt like a cool headed foil to his mom who was so in her head all the time. Though it’s kind of understandable considering Lina is telling the story so the reader is constantly privy to all of her thoughts. Anyways, I really liked Rory and couldn’t help but think just how lucky his mom was to have him.
But what really drove me crazy were all these details and people added in early on and then their threads just seemed to unravel. It felt like everything and the kitchen sink were thrown in “just in case” with no clear direction so some of it popped in and out, others were completely dropped, and others were kind of a slow fade. It was weird and really helped make it all about Lina. Lina had to rely on herself and a few sources of information, but I couldn’t help but wonder why all the extraneous pieces had been thrown in.
I also wish the neighborhood had been highlighted more. The families seemed interesting and like they might have fascinating stories considering they’re wealthy. But most of the story didn’t seem to take place there. It took Lina far from home without being too far. There were some quirky locales she found herself in, but, for a book that’s titled after a test given at a school in a certain area, I expected more of it to be set in said area, to see Lina deal more with the parents, teachers, and school board.
Then there’s the fact that each chapter is headed with a complex question that I assume must be from this Wonder Test. I tried puzzling through the first few, but, as I read on, I started to feel they didn’t really add anything to the story. Of course, to a degree, I did appreciate them as it highlighted just how intense the test is, but it also highlight just how lackluster the story is. I couldn’t shake the feeling the story was a vehicle to showcase just how brilliant these questions from the author’s mind could be, as though more effort had been made for them than the story.
All that said, I really did enjoy the characters. The reader is privy to Lina’s thought process and how she solves and handles cases. I couldn’t possibly say if any of it was accurate, but I enjoyed the journey.
The Wonder Test is an interesting story about an FBI agent getting back into the swing of things after personal tragedies. It nicely involves her teenage son and a mother’s instinct to protect. But it’s definitely all about Lina and is not really a suburban thriller. There’s definitely some weird stuff in this book, but I think my favorite part would be the characters. Overall, it felt like a bunch of things were thrown in and tossed, and only some of it really made sense when put together.
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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.