WARNING: This review contains spoilers. Events which occur towards the end of the book are discussed in some detail in the 6th paragraph below. It doesn’t reveal the plot’s surprise twist but it is a pretty major reveal all the same. I tried but could not manage to discuss my thoughts about the book without revealing more plot spoilers than I am normally comfortable with.
Using the philosophy that underlies the advice about ripping bandaids off quickly, I’m going to get the hard part of this review out now: I didn’t like THE GOLDEN CHILD. I wanted to like it. Very much. I have read most of Wendy James’ other books and thought them all very good, with THE MISTAKE having a firm place on my ‘go to’ list of great book recommendations for any sort of reader. I bought this one on pre-order, even before I started seeing all the good reviews it has garnered. But though I kept reading and hoping my dislike was a temporary thing, the book never really grabbed me at all. I imagine the Germans have a great word to describe the particular kind of disappointment that follows the non-enjoyment of a much anticipated book. In the absence of their superior linguistic skills I’ll just say I am sad.
The book – which falls within the suspense genre at its broadest definition – is centred on the Mahoney family. Well the Mahoney women really; engineer Dan Mahoney’s role in this story is to act as the plot device for moving the family from one place to the next. Dan’s wife Beth is the 40-something mother to teenagers Lucy and Charlie, or Charlotte as she decides she will be called when the family moves from the US to Australia where Dan and Beth were both born. Beth has a blog – where she presents an idealised version of her family life to the world – but has not worked outside the home since the kids were born. Though, as she reminds us often, she was not legally allowed to work while they lived in the US, it wasn’t like she chose just to stay home. Lucy, older than her sister by a year, is a pretty average daughter and student while Charlie is the alpha female in any group. Popular. Gifted. Ambitious. Troubled?
Beth makes friends with Andi, mother of Sophie who is one of Charlotte’s classmates at the prestigious private school the girls attend in their new home. Although musically gifted Sophie struggles socially so Andi is keen to help a potential friendship develop and gets the two families together as much as possible. Alas neither Andi nor her husband notice that Sophie is being subjected to more than the usual teenage meanness. She’s being seriously bullied, both online and in real life. Readers see it all along but the fact is only revealed to Sophie’s parents in a very frightening way.
One of the things I didn’t like about this book is its treatment of its male characters. Neither Steve (Andi’s husband) nor Dan have much agency in their own right let alone as fathers or husbands. In a different book written in a different era Steve and Dan would have been the female appendages to more charismatic, important male characters so emotionally stunted and two dimensional were they. I don’t know if this was a deliberate kind of ‘turning the tables’ on gender issues in literature or there wasn’t room to flesh either of these characters out or James just wasn’t interested in their stories but this just didn’t strike me as terribly realistic for a story unfolding in the present day.
Perhaps I would have found this treatment of the male gender more forgivable if the female characters had been stronger than they were. I don’t mean I didn’t like them (that is true but not my point) but that they didn’t develop. Even when their respective worlds fracture neither of the adult female characters changes in any meaningful way nor does any of the deep soul searching that is, surely, to be expected. There’s a fluttering of angst from both and some surprisingly short-lived anger from Andi and then it’s back to the average parenting and self-absorption they were both engaged in prior to ‘the event’.
[Spoiler alert] But the aspect of the book that most disappointed me was its handling of the central thematic issue. The way that Sophie lets on to the adults in her life that things are not going well is a suicide attempt. For some days she lies in a coma and there is uncertainty about whether she will have brain damage even if she does survive. During this period her parents are appropriately angry and vengeful. Her teachers are lining up for a proportionate response and even Beth and Dan are at least slightly invested in doing something about ‘the issue’. But when Sophie pulls through with no adverse health effects things revert almost to ‘normal’. As if nothing had ever happened. Sophie herself appears to have no memory of a suicide attempt (and no mention is made of her having any kind of treatment which in the health system I work in is just entirely unrealistic for a 12 year old who has seriously attempted suicide), both sets of parents appear eager to pretend that everything is fine and the school goes out of its way to whitewash the whole affair. I could have bought one, or perhaps two, of those but the notion that everyone involved is prepared to play make believe just stretched the bounds of credibility beyond breaking point for me. I know it’s fiction but in other aspects – such as its descriptions of the escalating cruelty towards Sophie – the book has presented itself in a realistic style and I don’t think this kind of thing can be turned on and off quite so easily. [End spoilers]
Although its depiction of the bullying teenagers can dish out seems perfectly, and scarily, accurate that wasn’t enough to make this book a good read for me. I thought its characters lacked depth and its story too contrived and unbelievable. For me the central question posed by the book’s premise – how might someone cope when they learn they are the parent of a bully – is never dealt with in any substantive way. However THE GOLDEN CHILD has been getting rave reviews just about everywhere but here so, as always, other opinions are available.
This is the 2nd book I’ve read and reviewed for the sixth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: Harper Collins 
Length: 338 pages
Source of review copy: I bought it