Bestselling and award-winning author Todd Babiak returns with an immersive and affecting story about a teenager's fascination with an enigmatic new woman in town whose past is catching up with her.
Monument, Colorado, July 1989. Fourteen-year-old Adam Lisinski is mesmerized the moment Beatrice Cyr steps into his life. Adam has a lot going for him: he's hoping to be a starter on his high school football team, he has a fiercely protective mom, a girlfriend, and a part-time job at Eugene's Gas Stop, where he works with his best friend. But he neglects everything that matters to him after Beatrice, his neighbour's enigmatic new wife, comes to town. Soon he finds himself alone with her--in the change room at Modern You, a clothing store on Second Street; in the back row of the theatre at Chapel Hill Cinema; in the front seat of her truck. He's confused about who she is, what she wants, and where she comes from. Adam is desperate, caught between wanting to spend time with Beatrice--whose past is catching up with her--and lying to everyone he cares about. The guilt overwhelms him. And when Beatrice convinces Adam's mom to quit her job and partner in a risky real estate venture, he has to do something before everything spins further out of control. The plan he comes up with tests his courage and leads him to an unshakable truth about loyalty and love.
By turns riveting and tender-hearted, The Empress of Idaho is a story about the vulnerability and confusion of adolescence at the moment when it slams against adulthood. It's an unforgettable portrait of a boy's difficult coming of age.
About the author
Todd Babiak is an award-winning author, journalist and screenwriter. His second novel, The Garneau Block, was a #1 regional bestseller, a longlisted title for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the winner of the City of Edmonton Book Prize. His third novel, The Book of Stanley, is in development for television. Babiak is a columnist for the Edmonton Journal and on the board of PEN Canada. Visit his website at www.toddbabiak.com.
Excerpt: The Empress of Idaho (by (author) Todd Babiak)
When she looked at me I saw what I had not seen. Our house was little more than a trailer. The blue vinyl siding was faded by the sun and carried years of dust. The front lawn was really a collection of weeds, but still it needed cutting.There was a filthy red chair with broken springs on our front porch. Weeks ago my mother had asked me to carry it to the corner so the garbage men could pick it up.
Now that the woman was looking at me I understood what Marv had said, that a man does not concern himself with gardening. I was too nervous and too ashamed to answer about the sweet williams. It did not matter because she had already turned and walked up his driveway. From a distance she seemed to float over the gravel. Marv raised his eyebrows and pointed in her direction with both his thumbs, took a step closer and whispered at me. He told me her name, Beatrice—like in poetry, he said. What poetry? It would come to him. Then: “Get this. We just got married.”
“You married her?”
“I goddamn married that woman.”
“Did you know her from somewhere before?”
“We met at O’Grady’s three nights ago.” He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his thick, oily leather wallet. “How you set up for cash? I’ll give you a five if you’ll help me unload her things.”
I hopped into the bed of the old truck and lifted the only heavy piece of furniture, a solid wood coffee table with a sticker on the leg that said "$9." Marv grabbed a garbage bag full of clothes.
"How's your mom?"
There was no sidewalk on Jefferson Street. We stood on the meeting place of weed and gravel. Marv looked at the front of our house. There was a constellation of wet spots where his breasts had pressed against his shirt. Now that Beatrice was not watching he let himself go crooked.
“I’ll cut the lawn.” The hard edges of the coffee table dug into my palms. “And get rid of that chair.”
“If you get a chance. A lady only gets one first impression.”
Inside, his house smelled of cigarette smoke and chemical peaches. An aerosol can of room deodorant, with an old English orchard on the front, had fallen over on the kitchen counter. The morning sun shone through Marv’s beige curtainsand turned his living room the colour of weak tea. It was tidier than usual.
“Where would you like the table, ma’am?”
She wore big gold rings and bracelets. She was thin like a boy and tanned. The garbage bag of clothes leaked. Marv struggled to contain it. Three panties and a sock fell on the green shag carpet and Marv laughed and cussed as he kneeled to pick them up. Then the bag tipped and a fur coat fell out.
I tried to right the bag. It was hot and melty. Beatrice bent and rushed me like a dainty ram. “Jesus Christ, child. That floor isn’t clean. Pick up that coat.”
“Now Beatrice, a boy like this never seen one of those before.”
She turned to Marv and he took a step back. Then she brought the coat to her nose and inhaled deeply, closed her eyes. By the time she looked at me again she was smiling. “You are?”
“Adam, ma’am, from next door.”
“Charmed. Beatrice Cyr. Walker-Cyr, I suppose, right, Marv?”
“This is a Valentino, Adam. Sable, it’s called.” She enunciated as though I were either six years old or from Honduras. “You can touch it to your face.”
“No, that’s okay, ma’am.”
“Touch it to your face.”
I touched it to my face.
“Soft, isn’t it? Softer than a dream. This coat was ten thousand dollars once. Can you imagine?”
I tried to imagine how a woman with a ten-thousand-dollar coat had a nine-dollar coffee table. When would she wear something like this on Jefferson Street?
There wasn’t so much in the bed of the truck: three more garbage bags of clothes and linens, a suitcase, an old lamp whose dust had survived the trip, two boxes of jewellery, a stuffed bunny with one eye, and a set of books about real estate and sales.
When I was finished unloading I waited in the kitchen. I did not want to go into the living room because everything was quiet and I was worried they might be kissing. The wallpaper had drawings of horses and buggies on it. Marv had found it at an auction in Denver. I had helped paste it up and there were a few bubbles and lines from where I had been hasty. It had been a fun day with Marv. We listened to Led Zep and drank root beer. Whenever I smelled commercial glue I thought of us that day, buzzed on sugar and fumes. A cloud of fruit flies hovered over a bowl of bruised bananas. She had a few cassette tapes: Out of the Cellar by Ratt, W.A.S.P. by W.A.S.P., and Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Gustav Mahler. I peeked inside a faded Converse shoebox and I did not understand what was in it apart from a black leather mask and a silver chain.
I put the broken lid back on the box. "Ma'am."
"Are you snooping?"
She took a step toward me and crossed her bare arms. They had visible muscles and tendons in them. I did not look into her eyes but I could not look at her arms or her chest or her legs either so I looked at the fruit flies and the bananas.
Marv hobbled in. His shirt was undone and his cheeks were plummy.
Beatrice turned and left us there in the kitchen. Marv watched her go and then he raised his eyebrows at me. "We meet at O'Grady's and next thing you know we got a suite at the Brown Palace."
"You bet." He fished around in his wallet, which was a wreckage of receipts and scratch tickets and credit cards.
"But your house is right here."
"Hotels are for romance, Adam." Marv peeked around the corner. "She's different from other ladies. This one's been all over the world. She's met industrialists, queens, the whole thing."
"What was she doing at O'Grady's?"
"Tell your mom I'll be there tonight. With my bride."
Marv did not have kids, and his first marriage had ended like my parents' had ended, with someone running. My dad ran. His wife ran. This is how I imagined the 1970s: people alone in convertibles with pink nylon scarves, crying goodbyes into the wind and driving to Los Angeles.
Praise for The Empress of Idaho
”If Gillian Flynn, Richard Ford, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Irving got together to write a novel, they would come up with The Empress of Idaho. Todd Babiak has gotten very close to perfection here. Plan ahead before you start—once you do, you will not be able to stop.” —Cathal Kelly, author of Boy Wonders
”The Empress of Idaho is like a 1980s Lolita turned into a darkly compulsive miniseries by Jean-Marc Vallée—starring a beautiful teenage boy. An achingly tender read shot through with Babiak’s humour and grace, this novel charms you as it haunts you. I could not put it down.” —Claudia Dey, author of Heartbreaker
“Todd Babiak’s writing is so perceptive and witty, his characters so thick with life that you’ll find yourself carried along the novel’s twists and turns as though you’re right there in 1989 in Colorado alongside them. Part dark comedy, part thriller, and part coming-of-age tale, The Empress of Idaho is a kaleidoscope of masterful storytelling.” —Amy Stuart, author of Still Mine
“Babiak skillfully develops his characters and their connections in a manner which reveals their individual depths and documents the effect Beatrice has upon them. . . . [Adam’s] victimization—from grooming through to the aftermath—is handled realistically and heartbreakingly. . . . A powerful, unsettling novel.” —Toronto Star
“Babiak has created a wholly believable boy on the verge of manhood . . . The Empress of Idaho is a brave book. It challenges many of our assumptions, not least in the areas of masculinity and victimhood. . . . a challenging and compulsively readable novel.” —Quill & Quire