Mr. French's manner of story telling is unique and his writing masterful and precise. I feel I'm being mesmerized bass I read- if that can be possible - as if I'm watching a painting being made, brush strokes by brush stroke. His style is invisible, he is not standing between the reader and the story. And the story seems to materialize out of itself.
Mr. French's #1 talent as a writer is his way of generating living, breathing characters. I became aware of his flair for this about half way through the book. I had been reflecting upon what I had just read when I realized that I have a high definition image of the main character, Brit, and that I have no recollection of reading lengthy passages that describe her in such fine detail. My dawning was this: she was assembled by me from lots of little pieces, unrelated quirks, gestures, stray thoughts. Perhaps this is the same mechanism that we use when we come to "know" someone, that we form a composite from the bits and pieces of what we observe. Here we areaquainted with High School seniors in the process of sifting and solidifying the traits that will define their future roles. The readers are on a parallel course with that of the characters, we are aquiring an ever increasing detailed image of them as they gain deeper understanding of themselves. In one memorable scene, we become more familiar with Nathan through the eyes of Brit as she clandestinely surveys the contents of his bedroom through a closed window. His possessions help us to understand the diverse factors influencing his internal make up, subtle hints ,that become obvious with hindsight , of the ingredients that will flavor his unfolding personality disorders. Here, Mr. French's fluid manner of description is cinematic, successfully emulating that of Hitchcock in the opening scene of Rear Window.
Cliffhanger is a purely fun-to-read novel. We become witness to aspects of average American High School life coalesce into a promise of a greater future, one that they will play a part in designing.
In 2017, I began wondering how the new political norms in Washington would filter down to a public high school election, say, in 2025. I made middle-of-the-night notes. Then I put those notes into pages. Then I made the pages into a novel. Then I rewrote the story a half dozen times… until I began to see how it could all come true.
In a world where one news story, no matter how wrenching, risks being eclipsed quickly by another tragic event, the story of Parkland, Florida has stayed with me. Like, every day. It grabs my heart even more than Columbine, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, or dozens of other school killings. It’s hard emotionally to get beyond the slaughter of innocents, or the mental illness of their killers, but the survivors of Parkland found a collective voice to challenge a dark pattern of history, proclaiming “#Never Again.” They have an ambitious agenda now of lobbying legislatures, pursuing social media, and broadening their coalition. I’m rooting for them with every step.
Down deep is another remarkable thing about Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. In the weeks following the tragedy, I listened to Cameron Kasky, Emma Gonzales, Alex Wind, David Hogg and other student leaders speak for sensible gun legislation and the responsibility of adults to protect minors. My take-away was maybe it’s high school students who need to protect and keep honest the adults. Their outspokenness was perhaps unprecedented coming from an American high school. Watching how poised, articulate and impactful a sixteen, seventeen or eighteen-year old could be, I was struck by their cohesiveness in rallying behind one of our century’s major issues: how to make us safer in an age of deepening insecurity, uncertainty and anxiety.
I have come to view students, in public and private high schools, as inescapably important members of society. For all the painful stories of kids marginalized by bullying and shaming, or who turn to drugs or guns or suicide to escape because they see no tunnel with a light, look again at Marjory Stoneman High School. Students are proving there is a light to follow—speaking their convictions with dispassionate eloquence—and to move toward that light means self-esteem and self-empowerment. High schools across the country now have a precedent for being heard on crucial issues because a tired Congress, overworked media, churches, and political non-profits can’t get the job done alone. I hope more students give themselves permission to be taken seriously. They should insist on it, and ignore critics who view high school as a mere launch to college or adulthood.
I was in college in the golden age of President Kennedy’s dictum “don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Responding, my generation threw itself into the civil rights movement, the Peace Corp, local and national politics, and a search for a deeper identity for ourselves and our country. In the category of social activism. high schools might be the new colleges. As our political culture grows jarringly complicated, and I feel repression in the air, I long for the strength of new voices.
Michael R. French
Michael French is a graduate of Stanford University and Northwestern University. He is a businessman and author who divides his time between Santa Barbara, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico.