It’s the long, hot summer of 1989 and 14-year-old Adam Lisinski – high-school football star, loyal friend to Simon, good son to his single mom, Helen – is living on the wrong side of the tracks in the small town of Monument, Colorado. He is also certain that he is in love, only not with his girlfriend, Phoebe, daughter of the town’s unofficial first family. Rather, Adam has fallen for his neighbour Marv’s enigmatic new bride. How Marv – a lame, big-bellied man who “grew his hair long on the right side and glued it on top with a musky cream” – ended up with Beatrice Cyr, who looks “like a stewardess in the movies,” is a mystery to everyone. From the moment he lays eyes on Beatrice, Adam is enthralled. And Beatrice, for her part, takes an uncommon interest in Adam.
The set-up of The Empress of Idaho is less than original. A coming-of-age story set in a late-’80s John Hughes–esque world roughly akin to that of Pretty in Pink or Some Kind of Wonderful, it plays on the puerile male fantasy of the older woman as seductress. The confounding variable in this otherwise mundane exercise is the author himself. Very little ever goes to form with Todd Babiak – see, for example, previous novels like The Book of Stanley or Toby: A Man. Here, what might otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill bildungsroman appears instead as something more nuanced and far murkier.
In Adam, Babiak has created a wholly believable boy on the verge of manhood – his body understands adult desires, but his mind, as yet unformed, is very much confused by the workings of the grown-up world. This becomes clear to both Adam and the reader when, while offering to purchase him a new suit for the wedding of Phoebe’s sister, Beatrice enters the change room with him, something he knows “was not allowed.” Frightened by her closeness but hopeful of it, too, Adam is perplexed when, after pulling up his pants, “she stood and looked at me and … dug her fingernails into the soft part of me below my waist.”
Thus begins an uneasy affair that leaves Adam at times bloodied and bruised but resolute in following the one rule that Beatrice insists on: “No one could know” because it “would hurt them and us and if I told anyone I would make an enemy of her and that was the last thing I would ever want in my life.”
The Empress of Idaho is a brave book. It challenges many of our assumptions, not least in the areas of masculinity and victimhood. That’s not to say that it is without its shortcomings. Beatrice at times veers too closely to the archetypical vamp, and subplots — the sexual awakening of Simon, Adam’s Kenyan émigré friend, and the real-estate partnership between Helen and Beatrice – feel somewhat forced. None of which, however, takes away from what remains a challenging and compulsively readable novel.