Arjun Rao’s Third Best is a good story that is struggling out of a mediocre jacket. The jacket image screams, “children’s section!” but the book itself will delight young adults.
Set in a boarding school, Shore Mount, it follows the life of Nirvan Shrivastava and his friends and teachers as he comes of age—from a little boy grappling with the tremendous weight of expectation placed on him as the scion of a long line of outstanding Shrivastava alumni, to the accomplished young man who arguably exceeds those expectations as he graduates. Most of this, as well as the several sub-plots featuring Nirvan’s friends and the Shore Mount staff, is written compellingly. And thankfully, there is no attempt to simplify the moral ambiguity of the situations they encounter just to rope in younger readers. You can feel their tragedies and triumphs; you really do care what happens to these people. But Rao risks losing it all with a plot device that even a ten-year-old might find lame. Against that, quibbles like girl characters who are nowhere as finely drawn as the boys (though he makes up with a devastating account of a woman teacher’s desolation) seem insignificant.
Still, if you went to boarding school, you’ll find that people and memories from your past wander easily onto the pages as you read. That’s how well Rao recreates life on a residential campus—and why Third Best is so much greater than the sum of its flaws.