Affecting, low-key chronicle by Sports Illustrated writer Bamberger (To the Linksland, 1992, etc.) of a year spent with a cross-section of students at Pennsbury High, outside Philadelphia.
Pennsbury is your good-sized Everyschool, drawing its students from the working-class towns of Lower Bucks County and the posher suburbs surrounding it. Its modest claim to fame, and the hook on which the author drapes his story, is an old-fashioned prom night held in the school gymnasium. Almost every senior will attend that event, which threatens to overwhelm a couple of the story’s main characters. Bamberger wisely concentrates on the fates of some dozen students, juniors and seniors, following their trajectories with enough detail to elicit empathy. He profiles a young couple who have a baby, a three-sport icon who buckles slightly under the burden of being considered perfect (though his relationship with his younger brother, who has spina bifida, is perfect), and a kid with cerebral palsy who wonderfully gets his ducks in a row. A grim mid-narrative climax arrives with the terrible death of one whose ducks were already flying very high indeed, even if he was “working on his cool.” But all miniature melodramas lead to the prom, and Bamberger handles them with such aplomb they take on outsized importance, just as the kids experienced them. Will singer John Mayer show? Will the Hollywood motif be a bust? Will the hundreds of strange dreams that the students harbor work out? Teachers, administrators, and parents (like the kids, some are getting it right, while others burn out or just get it wrong) also are melded into a tableau so natural it seems to be breathing on its own.
Tenderly delivers a frazzled, appealing group of kids, proving once again that no examined life is ordinary.