Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: The Whole Golden World by Kirstina Riggle

The Whole Golden World by Kristina Riggle
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication Date: November 5, 2013
Page Count: 419
Source/Format: Library book!
Keywords: family drama, student-teacher relationship, marriage

Seventeen year old Morgan starts talking to TJ Hill after class one day. She likes that he treats her like the mature adult she believes she is. He likes that she sees him as some sort of hero. Their relationship slowly evolves into something more, testing the boundaries of what they each view a healthy relationship to be. The issue? Morgan is TJ's student, and he is a thirty year old married man. Their secret relationship depends on the women in each of their lives remaining oblivious. Morgan's mother, Dinah, is too wrapped up in her small business, rebellious twin son's, and a dissolving marriage to pay attention to the comings and goings of her honor student daughter. TJ's wife, Rain, hinges her happiness on ovulation cycles and TJ's ability to help her create a baby. When their case comes to trial, matters are made even more complicated when Morgan sit's on TJ's side, as a willing woman in love with an older man, instead of a victimized student. Told from the perspective of the three women, Morgan, Rain, and Dinah, all sides of this relationship are shown, and the different ways one relationship can shatter a community.
That quick, sad smile told her all she needed to know. Despite the courts saying it was a crime, despite her parents locking her down like she herself was a criminal, despite the gossip and vandals and spewing hate from random strangers...he loved her anyway. Against the odds and against all sense. She lifted her chin and straightened her shoulders, as if the orchestra conductor had just raised her baton.
The judge cleared his throat and the air in the room seemed to freeze, as everyone waited for it all to begin. 
I used to be a big Jodi Picoult fan in high school. I was always sucked into her highly dramatic novels that made me question my morals and her ability to create multiple sides to a story that mixes her readers up so they don't even know what they want to think until the very end. When I read the plot overview of The Whole Golden World by Kristina Riggle, I knew that this was something that was right up my alley. I was greatly intrigued by the three perspectives that we get to see this story unwind in. The perspective I was most looking forward to was Morgan's, since she is the one going through this affair with her teacher. I was actually kind of disappointed. We get snippets into her life. She writes dark poetry that she keeps secret from everyone else. She is an honor student. She plays the cello. She is like a second mom to her prematurely born twin brothers. She's an insomniac. Her ex-boyfriend is in TJ Hill's class with her. She has a scar that she is deeply self-conscious about. Yet, many details does not a round character make, and unfortunately I think she fell victim to her author trying to do too much with her. Why does she play cello and does she actually like it? Why is she still upset about her ex-boyfriend that dumped her quite a while ago and seemed to treat her like dirt? WHAT DOES HER SCAR LOOK LIKE? One thing that irked me was the fact that this facial scar is mentioned many times, is the subject of a lot of her poetry, and the source of her nightmares, yet we don't know what it looks like. We see where her scar comes from, and we know that she cakes it in makeup, but we don't know what it looks like. Everyone tells her that the scar isn't that bad, so I started to learn not to trust Morgan. That distrust grows stronger when she admits that much of her attraction to Mr. Hill is based on the fact that he treats her like an adult. Yet, with her mother pushing her to act like a second mother to her twin brothers, and her constant studying and amount of responsibility, I was surprised that this was something that she needed validation for. Her mood swings are often misguided, too. At one point, she gets in an argument with her best friend Ethan when he makes her feel like a fool over something that (to me) was fairly small. Yet she holds an intense grudge against her best friend that spans months. I was thinking that by the end of the novel I would have figured her out, but I didn't. My confusion over her motives and desires made it hard for me to care and feel sorry for her when the slander starts rolling in and things started falling apart.
She turned in the circle of his arms and tossed away her hairbrush, fitting herself to him. Lucky girl, her mother had said the day she got married, and Rain had agreed, that day and every day hence. I'm a lucky girl indeed.She reminded herself how exhausting it was for TJ to be the "fun teacher," the role he had chosen for himself. All day, every day, he had to be on, and up, and dialed "all the way up to eleven" as he put it, all the while maintaining a tricky balance between allowing just enough jovial fun without letting the classroom unravel into chaos.
My favorite character to follow along with was TJ's wife, Rain. Her character is an example in this novel where less is more. She is a yoga teacher, born from free-spirit parents, yet finds it hard to believe in the typical yogi rhetoric. And she desperately wants to be a mother. She struggles with her stubborn fertility and puts all of her energy into creating a baby with her husband. Rain isn't clouded by as many details as Morgan, and it was much easier for me to sympathize with her. We see her patience with TJ, and the hope she clings to when it comes to conceiving. While I was questioning why Morgan felt the need to pursue a teacher, I had no problems seeing how Rain was able to remain somewhat oblivious to her husband's infidelity. Rain was also on one of the bigger emotional rollercoasters in this book. Because her focus was so concentrated on becoming a mother, I felt more connected to her pursuit. Even though Rain does not realize her husband's affair until later on in the book, little hints from TJ were laced into her narrative, so we could see what was going on, but she couldn't yet bring herself to think the worst.
When Dinah flinched away from Morgan and stared at her own clenched hands, she began to picture herself as she must appear to everyone else: the failed mother, whose golden child turned out to be just another girl gone bad. Schadenfreude was already in full effect, Dinah knew, from the way the other mothers feel silent when she dared step into their presence, looking at her sideways from wary, skeptical eyes.
Her own mother had exclaimed, "How could you let this happen?" when she first heard, as if Dinah had mistakenly let Morgan off her leash.
Dinah had been outraged at the time and railed at her mother for the lack of support. But in the darkest hours of the night, Dinah continued to ask herself the very same question. 
Dinah fell into the same trap that her daughter did. She is surrounded by a lot of drama that I had a hard time letting myself get interested in. The main story at the heart of The Whole Golden World, is the affair between Morgan and TJ. Unlike in Rain's narrative, pieces of this affair were not sprinkled into Dinah's, which made her Call to Action come fairly late in the game. Up until she finds out about her daughter's illegal affair, we don't see anything about the story at hand. Instead we see her struggles as the business owner of a small cafe that is popular with the high school students. We watch her marriage with her husband, the assistant principal of Morgan's school, fall apart. And we watch as she flounders to keep control of her twin son's who have entered their first year of mainstream high school. I liked that Dinah owned a cafe, which put her in the heart of high school gossip, but it failed to serve any purpose until it becomes a place of slanderous vandalism. It would've been more effective for gossip about her daughter to bubble up in the cafe and trigger Dinah's hovering parental style to see what Morgan was up to. Her crumbling marriage also seemed more like  an attempt from Riggle to add more drama and stakes to the story, but it comes off as a cliche. They don't have as much fun as they used to. She fears infidelity on his end. She is jealous. Her marriage to a person of power within the high school where this affair unfolds also held a lot of potential, but even that was anti-climatic to me, because besides him coming home late and drinking a lot of beer, we really don't see much of him! A lot of Dinah's dialogue was clunky and unnatural, like she was giving a quotable speech every time she spoke. She did have a lot of passion, though, so I will have to give her a thumbs up for that.
It was all going exactly according to plan.
He leaned in for a kiss, and this time she dodged his morning breath but covered by tilting her head to kiss his neck next to his Adam's apple. A groan rumbled in his throat, and he briefly grabbed her hair.
Then he released her. "Bye, I'll get in touch when I can." He opened the door, and she stepped into the chilly garage.
One word rang in her mind as he swung the door shut behind her: dismissed
So if you quickly scrolled to the bottom of this (pretty lengthy) review to see my rating, you are probably wondering, "so why the 4 crystal rating?!" After all, I really only liked one of the three main narrators. Strangely enough, I really enjoyed reading any part that contained TJ Hill, even though we are supposed to view him as a predator, or at the very least, an adulterer. His character evolves so much. He is originally painted as the teacher you could only hope to have in high school. He's young and attractive, lends a helpful hand, and allows a hearty amount of fun in his classroom. I knew for a fact that I wasn't supposed to trust TJ, I just had to think about why. Was it because he was engaging in this relationship with a student, or was it because he was a dirty liar? My distrust in him was entrancing and interesting for me to read. I definitely got a Jodi Picoult-esque fix by reading this novel, because there were so many sides presented. The failed mother, the hopeful wife, and the dying-to-be-adult teen girl participating in this affair. Not only was I trying to figure out my distrust on TJ, I was also debating over whether or not Morgan deserved to be shamed as much as she was. The affair happens between two consensual adults, the complications come in with the fact that he's married. And her teacher. I also greatly enjoyed, as I mentioned, the complexity of TJ's character. I would've rather had his perspective instead of Dinah's. The debates inspired by this book would make it an A+ pick for a book club!

The Whole Golden World is a mixed bag. Two of the three perspectives were muddled by irrelevant drama and details that made it hard for me to feel for the characters. The affair between this well-loved teacher and his student, and the questions I asked myself while reading this novel made it unputdownable for the last half of this novel. I was desperate to see how this played out for each character, and I was making new assumptions at every turn of the page.

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