A staple of the Alberta book scene, Todd Babiak is a familiar name to most. In addition to his talents as a writer, he is quite simply, a very funny person. He hosted the Alberta Literary Awards a few years ago, keeping the audience laughing throughout, and believe me, this is no easy task (I’ve done it myself, so I can say this with certainty!). Because he has such a wonderful sense of humour, I’ll admit I unfairly expected his latest book to read like a comedy. And although it had its funny moments, it is most definitely not a comedic novel.
The Empress of Idaho is told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Adam, a polite, promising teen who lives in small-town Colorado, a place where nothing ever happens and high school football is the main source of entertainment. Adam gets good grades, is a star football player, and dating one of the richest girls in his town; he is ‘going’ somewhere. But the arrival of Beatrice Cyr (which we later discover, is not her real name) distorts Adam’s perfect-looking future when she becomes his next-door neighbor. Her high-heels and expensive clothes are even more extraordinary when it’s revealed she’s married Marv, a slovenly older man who’s nice enough, but twice the age of Beatrice and not half as attractive as her. Right from the beginning her entrance is suspicious, and Babiak does a superb job at heightening the tension and dread as it’s revealed she has a darker sexual side.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Adam begins a sexual relationship with Beatrice, and it doesn’t take the reader long to realize that she is abusing Adam, whether he realizes it or not. Yes, he’s a teenage boy, and society jokes about this sort of thing as a ‘dream come true’ for male adolescents, but Babiak makes it clear she is manipulating him in a negative way, even if Adam thinks he is in love with her. As we know, many people who experience domestic abuse are also deeply in love with their abuser, and even though the genders in this book don’t conform to what we typically expect of this kind of sexual abuse, this situation does not seem far-fetched at all. In fact, Adam slips into this horrendous state-of-mind so easily, as a reader I was shocked at how easily Beatrice was able to deceive him and his family.
Which brings me to the characterization of Beatrice; although we never see the world through her own eyes, I badly wanted to. She has everyone under her spell, except for the reader. Adam lives with his single mother, (his father ran off long ago), and like her son, she also falls for Beatrice, but in a completely different way. For Adam’s mother, Beatrice is a symbol of hope and independence, and together, they create an investment scheme that the locals buy into, essentially getting something out of nothing. So Beatrice is deeply problematic; we can’t call her evil because she does bring about (very few) positive things, but it’s also clear she’s suffered as a child, and although the abuses she experienced herself are only hinted at, it doesn’t take much to imagine what turned her into the offender she becomes. If this is all making you uneasy, it should be! I felt a sense of dread deep in the pit of my stomach throughout my entire reading of this, but I was also eager to see how things turn out for each character, and thank god Babiak doesn’t leave it open-ended, he tidily answers all our questions by the end.
Many people have called this book a modern-day Lolita, but there is a very big difference between the two books, and that is the clear condemnation of Beatrice’s acts. Although it has been awhile since I’ve read Lolita, a criticism of it is the subtle justification the adult man’s behavior, who was so clearly a predator. In Empress, there is no question that Beatrice is the predator, and though her despicable actions may be triggered by something in her past and we feel a bit of sympathy for her, no character remains untouched by her contagion.
This book sounds more like Tampa by Alyssa Nutting that Lolita, and Nutting’s book was based on a real case of a teacher who seduced one of her male students, a teacher whom apparently Nutting had gone to high school with.
I will say that I’m concerned that the author implies that the women is abusing a teenage boy because she herself was abused. More likely a person who is abused as a child then goes on to be abused by adult partners.
Hmm yah that’s a good point re: the abuse. It’s not an overt implication, I think it’s just another layer to this woman’s story.
This sounds really fascinating. I’ve heard of Babiak before but never read his work. I think it’s actually a good thing to have more of these clearly negative portrayals in fiction because too often when the older woman/younger man is shown it is in the realm of “male fantasy come true”. But it’s still abuse, even when the genders are switched so I’m glad there’s no ambiguity here.
yes so true
This sounds fascinating. It is interesting that society still reacts so differently to an older woman seducing a boy than to an older man seducing a girl – I expect it’s a throwback to the days when sex resulted in pregnancy for girls and therefore their ‘ruin’, whereas for boys it was seen as ‘experience’. And yes, it was the implicit justification of the predator’s behaviour in Lolita that left me feeling nauseated…
mhhmmm for sure!
I put this a book aside after maybe 100 pages, not because I didn’t like it, I got distracted. I need to get back to it. I would also draw a closer comparison to Tampa, I think in Lolita it’s all about the unreliable/manipulative narrator, and he’s manipulating the reader as well. In Tampa, it’s also narrated by the abuser, or close third person, can’t quite recall, but she’s much less successful in manipulation. She kinda puts it all out there. Definitely read it if you haven’t, it’s a trip.
You’re the second person to recommend Tampa now! Gosh I’m missing out…
I’ve had this book for a while, but have been misled by the cover until now. I also thought it would be more comedic. I will definitely be more likely to read it now! Have you read his other books? How does it compare?
It’s been awhile since I read the Toby book, so I can’t do an accurate comparison. This book is funny, but that’s not the point of it, yah know?