Middle-aged kindergarten teacher Judy McFarland is caught in a loveless marriage when she first meets Zach Patterson, a 16-year-old student at the Waldorf school where she teaches. Something about Zach — his unassuming masculinity; his teasing manner; his mischievous eyes — reminds her of a young man she knew during her turbulent childhood in Germany, and her draw to Zach is all-encompassing.
Judy justifies what she’s doing as a sort of temporary insanity, then rationalizes that if Zach didn’t like spending time with her, he wouldn’t. But as the intensity of their trysts increases and Judy begins to take it all too far, her desperation to emerge from the potential scandal unscathed — and her fear over losing her teen lover completely — may end in tragedy.
Rebecca Coleman’s The Kingdom of Childhood is an explosive, dynamic and horrifying look at how completely unhinged one woman becomes in her quest to rekindle the innocence — the purity, maybe — of her childhood. In doing so, she seduces a teenage boy — a friend of her own son — and uses him for her immodest gains.
Or does she?
There are no easy answers in Coleman’s debut novel, which is equal parts fascinating and horrifying. More than once I could only scan the pages with my jaw hitting my chest, wondering how in the world this woman was so sick and delusional. Coleman does an outstanding job of building Judy’s world into something we both understand and don’t understand. After a tumultuous and disenchanting childhood as an American child in Germany, Judy’s perception of love and sex are already skewed. But I didn’t think she was this messed up.
When The Kingdom of Childhood opens, it’s obvious that Judy is an unsettled and unsettling character — but I had no idea the breadth of her slanted moral compass. It’s a true testament to Coleman’s skill as a writer that I shifted from feeling empathy toward Judy to being absolutely disgusted by her, and by the close of the novel I wanted nothing more than to slap her myself. Maybe Zach is screwed up, too, but he’s a boy. A teenage boy. A boy who knows little about love than what he’s seen himself, and his own pull to Judy might have begun as a game . . . but it certainly doesn’t end that way.
As Judy sends her own daughter off to college and prepares for her son to leave, too, she questions her dwindling role in others’ lives. Judy’s eldest daughter gets on a wavering path toward religion and summarily rejects every Waldorf principle she was taught growing up, and it’s obvious this wounds Judy to the core. The Waldorf principle of learning, it seems, is this: provide for children an unsullied, magical experience in their formative years. Protect them from harm. Encourage them to pursue artistic talents and become individuals. Allow them to remain innocent from the world’s ills for as long as possible, even if this means encouraging a belief in something like fairies. When Judy’s daughter turns her back on her entire upbringing, Judy feels like she’s rejecting her.
And she doesn’t want to feel like dirty laundry. Like someone’s second best. When Russ, her distant and overbearing husband, finds himself working more on his thesis than spending time with his family, Judy becomes lonely and distracted and cold. Does that excuse her involvement with Zach? Absolutely not. But initially, at least, I felt sorry for her.
But then there was the sex. It’s at the heart of this book, really — but it’s not just the physical act that drives Coleman’s characters. It’s our carnal desire to take someone and be taken, or the obsession humans feel with wanting to “possess” another. Having intimate knowledge of another feels like our ultimate bond with them, and both Judy and Zach are obsessed with possessing others. Or maybe trying to fully possess themselves. But while Zach is a teenage boy prone to . . . well, to teenage boy fantasies, Judy is a grown and disillusioned woman who more than knew better.
I don’t know when the entire novel began to take on a sinister edge, but I’m pretty sure it’s around the time Russ began divulging some of Judy’s secrets. I was fascinated by Coleman’s ability to seamlessly shift narrative voices, and when her husband started to expose her, I realized that Judy’s narration wasn’t at all reliable. With the introduction of fire and certain characters’ obsessions with it, I actually started trembling.
This is a dark, fascinating and incredibly thought-provoking story — the kind I don’t think I’ll ever forget. While it was often hard to read, I tore through it like I was on fire myself. I don’t know if it’s the sort of story you love, only because it centers on such a disturbing subject matter, but Rebecca Coleman has created an unforgettable tale about infidelity, love and obsession.
4 out of 5!