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EARLY LEAVING by Judy Goldman

EARLY LEAVING

By Judy Goldman

Pub Date: Sept. 21st, 2004
ISBN: 0-06-059458-6
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Second-novelist Goldman (The Slow Way Back, not reviewed) adds to the mini-genre of “Where did I go wrong as a mother?”

Eighteen-year-old Early (Earl) Smallwood, a popular honors student whose parents are members of the upper-middle-class white liberal establishment of Charlotte, South Carolina, has admitted killing a black teenager and setting his car on fire to hide the evidence. Awaiting Early’s sentencing, his mother Kathryne reconsiders their family’s history to understand how her darling boy could have committed such a heinous act. Simpering, superficial, and overindulgent Kathryne is not the most trustworthy narrator, and Smallwood’s skill at making her realistically unlikable slips into overkill early on. From the day of Early’s birth, Kathryne works to keep her son’s life as easy as possible, just as her annoyingly sweet mother did for her. Kathryne takes umbrage at her husband Peter’s tougher approach to child-rearing, and, although the disagreements often seem piddling, by the time Early reaches adolescence, the stress within the marriage has driven Peter into an affair. As Peter and Kathryne try to repair their marriage, Early falls increasingly under the sway of his best friend Chip. Is Chip a bad influence? Is Kathryne blaming him to avoid admitting that Early might drink, smoke pot, or lie? Tough love advocates should appreciate the book’s loud and clear argument against permissive parenthood—not that Early’s misbehavior is beyond the norm until his crime, which is itself frightening precisely because it feels so random, a tragic case of accelerating teenage tempers and impulsiveness. Ultimately, Goldman dodges answering her own provocative questions about parenting. Early gathers moral courage in prison, while Kathryne, now divorced, learns to give him independence—or so she says.

An odd combination of vehement message and purposely ambiguous characters: admirable but not entirely enjoyable.