The characters are put to the test in Michelle Richmond’s new novel

For years, perhaps my entire life, disputes over testing have dominated the headlines.

Should schools teach “for” the test? Do standardized tests provide a better indicator of success than grades in individual classes? Are the tests biased towards one group or another? Should tests like the ACT or College Boards be mandatory or optional? (Recently, the argument has swung to voluntary or not required. We’ll see.)

And the GRE? What about LSAT or MCAT?

Well, forget all that. The “Wonder Test”, the subject of Michelle Richmond’s new book, is a brand new and until now fictional animal.

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Forget asking students to perform mathematical operations, remember dates, or understand a prose passage.

The Wonder Test is meta.

Possible questions relate to: analogies, ethics, diagrams and analyses, global model theories and future features.

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

“Genetically modified fruits will save or destroy the planet. What makes this statement true, false or irrelevant?”

“True or false: circles are more effective than triangles.”

“Compare and contrast compare and contrast.”

“Assuming the universe is constantly expanding, when does it become less likely that you will find your lost keys by continuing to search for them? Draw and discuss.

Passing this test guarantees admission to the most prestigious colleges and universities in America.

When Lina Connerly and her teenage son, Rory, move from New York to Greenfield, California, near the exceedingly wealthy and charming 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 inherited her father’s house.

They plan to live in Greenfield for a short time and recover from their sorrows and losses and then sell.

To his great surprise, his house, quite pretty, but not a palace, like all the houses in Greenfield is worth a fortune, millions.

Almost immediately, a local real estate agent, Harris Ojai, arrives in her Bentley and asks if she intends to sell. Ojai is kind of a very modern plastic surgery freak.

“His face is such an unusual amalgamation of heavily altered features that it is impossible to place it.”

According to a local theory, “he tries to look like all different ethnicities and nationalities to attract more customers”.

Real estate agents have been the butt of jokes in American literature for about a century. Perhaps the most famous is Sinclair Lewis’ pompous reminder of George F. Babbitt.

Lewis writes, “…he did nothing in particular, no butter, no shoes, no poetry, but he was nimble in a vocation to sell houses for more than people could afford to pay.

David Mamet’s play “Glengarry Glen Ross” brings the subject up to date, demonstrating utter amorality and Darwinian viciousness at 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 the highest in the entire country. People are crazy to live there.

Obsessive and tacky but harmless, so far you might say, but some school students go missing, get kidnapped for no apparent reason, come back alive but weakened. Lina is curious, then personally involved, and becomes the fierce and indignant mother.

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

It’s kind of a new Wonder Woman.

At this point, the novel transitions from satirical literary fiction to a fluid, intelligent, and quite violent thriller.

Lina sorts through the grotesquely greedy and eccentric characters and finds the most vile, amoral and twisted. They need to be killed and Lina complies.

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

“The Ordeal of Wonders: A Novel”

Author: Michelle Richmond

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press

Pages: 427

Price: $26 (hardcover)

Irene B. Bowles