In many ways Emily Maguire’s Taming the Beast feels like a companion novel to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. But instead of getting inside the head of a charming liar like Humbert, Maguire examines how an illicit romance between a teacher and student can impact the lives of just about every one involved.
At the age of fourteen, Sarah Chalke is seduced by her English teacher. At first it’s their love of words and literature that brings them together, but one afternoon things become heated and the two begin an illicit (and illegal) romance, including lots of after school encounters. Sarah keeps the affair a secret from everyone but her best friend, Jaime, who is secretly in love with Sarah. Things end with Mr. Carr’s takes a new job at a different school and decides to try and work things out with his wife, who has become aware of the affair.
The emotional and psychological impact of the affair follows Sarah for her entire life, influencing every relationship and decision she has after that. Despite having an interest and drive to further her education, Sarah is estranged from her conservative family and forced to make it on her own in the world, taking on a string of short-term lovers, none of whom satisfy her needs in quite the same way Mr. Carr did. Sarah even strings Jaime along over the years, including during Jaime’s engagement, marriage and becoming a father. In many ways, Jaime sees himself as the only thing keeping Sarah from going off the deep end and maybe he can save her if he simply loves her enough.
Then one day, Mr. Carr wanders back into Sarah’s life and things go from bad to worse. Controlling and manipulative, Carr wants to dictate to Sarah all aspects of her life.
Taming the Beast is a book full of fascinating characters, none of them extremely likable. Each character is blinded by self-destructive tendencies and an ability to justify their behavior to themselves as “doing the right thing.” In many ways, this is a novel about addictions and self-delusion. It makes for a fascinating read for the first half of the book, but once Mr. Carr shows back up things take a left turn and the novel never quite recovers. It makes a bunch of likably unlikable characters completely unlikeable and I found myself becoming frustrated with the bad choices everyone was making. Maybe that’s what Maguire is going for in the novel. I’m not one who feels that every book should have a “happy ending.” But it still feels like this one just misses the mark when it comes to sticking the landing.
And yet, I can’t help but want to pick up another novel by Maguire to see what she’s going to do next. I’m not sure what exactly this says about his book or me.