The Empress of Idaho by Todd Babiak

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Doesn’t the cover for The Empress of Idaho scream summer? Set in July 1989 it’s also situated nicely in those long, hot summer days and since we were under another heat advisory, I thought it would be the perfect one to read right now. The Empress of Idaho is an unsettling coming of age tale – an unlawful one for sure. It also fit nicely into my 20 Books of Summer reading challenge.

Adam is attempting to garden, if that is how you can describe what he’s doing out there, the pathetic patch in front of his house when his neighbour, the older, broken down Marv Walker opens his car door with a flourish to present a woman he proudly introduces as his wife. She does not fit at all into their run-down section of Monument. She certainly doesn’t fit into their run-down, smoke-filled and stained homes. Sporting high heels, a pretty dress and bright red lipstick, proudly showing off her $10,000 mink coat, she is a complete mystery and Adam is perplexed how someone the likes of Beatrice Cyr could marry someone like Marv Walker.

Beatrice quickly includes herself into Adam’s mother’s life and Adam’s as well. Certainly her involvement with Adam is concerning. What follows is a summer of an illicit affair between Adam and Beatrice. Adam is fourteen years old and Beatrice works hard to look younger than her 38ish years. Her past is never truly questioned nor is her reasoning for settling down with a person like Marv.

Adam becomes so enraptured with Beatrice, he cannot see how she is altering his life, how quickly her past is coming to meet up with her, the dubious business dealings she is involving his mother in and how much this is altering his behaviour and his prospects for the future.

It was one I fairly ripped through. Babiak has a nice writing style and you were well immersed into Adam’s home life and surroundings. The destitution of his home environment, the weeds and cast off cars and the despair of where and how he lived is front and center. You could vividly see the divide between his home life and that of his girlfriend Phoebe – whose family is significantly wealthy. Adam gets a pass because his brother is playing college ball with pro chances and Adam is also staring down those same prospects.

What I appreciated greatly was Babiak’s style of writing – this is a story about a young boy’s sexual coming of age. It is a highly delicate subject matter given the age of Beatrice and her seduction of a young teenage boy. This could have gone sideways for me had their been the over-description of sex acts, genitalia and highly sexualized scenes. Babiak does not go into great and gaudy detail about it, instead leaving the finer nuances up to the reader’s mind. I could completely understand what he was writing when he said Adam would “abuse himself”. I got it, I didn’t need a long and drawn out description of it. And for that I was most appreciative! Some content could leave you uncomfortable, but it was due to the manipulation on the part of Beatrice and how much she had Adam under her spell.

The ending came about fairly abruptly, or there just seemed to be something about it’s reveal that fizzled (melted if we refer to the ice cream cone on the cover?) for me. There’s just a slight sense of a letdown for me, I don’t really know how better to express this feeling. But overall, a quick read, nicely paced, great characters and perfect for your summer reading. The Empress of Idaho is nicely described as “a story about vulnerability and confusion of adolescence at the moment when it slams against adulthood. It’s an unforgettable portrait of a boy’s difficult coming of age.”

I just realized I also have another of Babiak’s books marked down to read: Come Barbarians, his novel published back in 2013. Thank you Penguin Random House Canada for sending The Empress of Idaho.