The age-old tensions among parents (well — mostly moms), kids and the academic world make for fertile ground, to which Kathleen West has returned after her dissection of high school histrionics in "Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes." The social media-fueled catastrophes in "Are We There Yet?" are scaled down to middle-school level, but as any parent of tweens can tell you, they seem no less traumatic.
Alice Sullivan's life — career, house, kids — is darned near perfect. If her lawyer husband didn't spend most of his time on the road she would have ratcheted that rating up to a 10. Then, at the beginning of her son's all-important seventh-grade year, her sense of superiority is upended by his impulsive actions, ones involving nudity, a school assembly and a hashtag war.
When did Teddy become a bully? wonders Alice in anguish. Maybe at the same time her 7-year-old flunked reading — while she was congratulating herself on securing the governor's daughter as an interior design client. Her friend Nadia was the one with the problem child, not her! The whole mess is enough to make her reluctantly turn to her mother the psychologist for advice. More about Grandma in a bit.
That hashtag war puts Teddy Sullivan at loggerheads with Tane Lagerhead, a gangly misfit who is coming into his own and rallying the seventh grade to #TeamTane. The fulcrum of their beef is Sadie Yoshida, Teddy's childhood friend, who flirts both with Tane and her own wild side. This also involves nudity, and a cellphone. When did her daughter become that kind of girl? wonders Meredith Yoshida in anguish. Maybe while this "ethical parenting" expert was fretting compulsively over Sadie's protein and caffeine intake.
Now back to Grandma Evelyn, whose own secret — she has connected with the daughter she gave up for adoption — threatens to further erode Alice's tenuous grip on control. Alice's new "sister" just happens to live in their town (a lightly fictionalized Minneapolis) and her job — child psychologist! — intersects neatly with Teddy's sudden need for guidance. Evelyn seesaws between glee and guilt over her newfound family ties, which include additional grandchildren who, by the way, have little need of therapy. Alice seesaws between jealousy and rage.
There's lots of psychobabble laid on these (pretty normal, actually) kids — "dysregulated," "conduct disorder," "sociopathy" — but the problems seem to lie mainly with the mothers whose friendships, nurtured since kindergarten roundup, might be reaching their expiration dates. It all seemed so easy before they had adolescents: "Together, they'd talked about parenting teenagers in a detached sense, laughing nervously at other people's problems." Now they were the other people.
The solutions, with fresh starts all around, tie things up a little too neatly. But they do reinforce one of parenting's basic tenets: Don't sweat the small stuff — and it's all small stuff.
Cynthia Dickison is a Star Tribune designer. @cynthiaj56
Are We There Yet?
By: Kathleen West.
Publisher: Berkley, 340 pages, $26.
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