The Whole Golden World is like watching a devastating car wreck in slow motion. You know there will be damage, whether structural or human, but you can't look away. As I was reading, I realized I was watching a bunch of unhappy people self-implode; deceit and anger and heartbreak and manipulation to such an extreme I almost put down my book. But, as I said, I could not look away. And, I am very glad I did not because The Whole Golden World turned out to be a most thought provoking, well written, and compelling book.
It is senior year for 17 year-old Morgan, honors student and talented cello soloist, and it should be the best year of her life. There is prom, good friends, and finally, graduation. She cannot wait to graduate and leave for college. Since the preemie birth of her twin younger brothers, her role has consisted mostly of co-parenting and protecting her mildly disabled brothers. Their mother Dinah, business owner and supermom, is also a helicopter mom when it comes to parenting and has trouble allowing her children room to grow, or make mistakes. Their father, Joe, while vice-principal at their school, his role at home appears to consist of sullen silences or angry, accusatory fights with Dinah.
Morgan's calculus teacher, TJ Hill, with his carefree, easy-going personality is a well-loved student favorite. His wife, Rain, desperately wants children but they are unable to, and this places a strain on their loving relationship. This becomes more so when TJ's envy of his "perfect" brother with his "perfect" wife and their higher income intensifies after they announce that are going to have a baby. Rain, always supportive and pacifying, suggests they try in-vitro fertilization, a solution TJ firmly opposes.
After a fight with her best friend, Morgan feels lost, her ego bruised. She begins to talk to the always-accommodating TJ after school. He listens as she bares her soul, then he, almost implausibly, tells Morgan about his troubles at home and with his wife. This opens the door to the unthinkable: TJ and Morgan begin an illicit, illegal, and immoral affair. As a teacher, and an adult, TJ should know better to distance himself from this dangerous situation. Morgan, always the perfect daughter and student, is exhilarated by the attention from her handsome teacher and feels she is more beautiful, more mature with this relationship. At times, she even appears to be more in control of their affair with TJ willingly following.
Their world explodes when the two are caught and there is the expected fallout from family, friends, co-workers and community. TJ blames Morgan for seducing him. Joe accuses Dinah for not being more attentive of their daughter's conduct. Rain is humiliated by her husband's actions. The twins get in fights at school to protect their sister. The question on everyone's lips is "How did this happen?"
Taking on such a provocative subject as teacher-student affairs is a touchy subject and a writer with less introspection could turn it into a toxic soap opera. Or, as this author did, the story can become a powerful, well thought-out, and meaningful story about flawed individuals. And it all comes down to what Morgan, Dinah and Rain decide to do. With their world crumbling around them, the characters can either perish in the debris, or they can make choices that will ultimately, despite all else, empower them. While this could never have a storybook ending, The Whole Golden World leaves the reader satisfied and stays with you for days.
It's a brilliant book and I highly recommend it.