From Notes on a Scandal to the real-life antics of Mary Kay Letourneau, relationships between teachers and students hold perennial intrigue in our culture. Set in Maryland at the time of the Lewinsky scandal, Rebecca Coleman’s psychologically disturbing novel, The Kingdom of Childhood, explores the dark, illicit side of desire.
Judy McFarland, a kindergarten teacher at the progressive and alternative Waldorf School, feels broken and displaced—she is haunted by the untimely death of her best friend and stuck in an unhappy, angry marriage with Russ, a Ph.D. candidate. Judy is asked to supervise 16-year-old Zach, a lonely transplant from New Hampshire, as he fulfills his service hours. Drawn together by mutual feelings of betrayal by their parents (in addition to untethered lust) the two quickly enter into an affair. Over time, Zach begins to retreat from increasingly obsessive, insatiable Judy, whose sexual proclivities grow unapologetically unsettling and unseemly. The novel barrels toward a suspenseful end as they both face the inevitable consequences of choices made.
The Kingdom of Childhood raises messy and controversial questions, making it a natural pick for book clubs. Coleman does not demand sympathy for her main character, and in fact, Judy’s break from reality and obscured moral barometer stokes the tension even further. Though at her strongest when revisiting Judy’s childhood in Germany, overall Coleman writes with a flair for capturing the underbelly of the human psyche and the all-consuming nature of desire.