The Golden Child starts with an Australian family based in America, Dan and Beth, with their two daughters. First born Lucy is seen as ‘a good egg’, the sensible one. Not as confident or popular as twelve-year-old Charlotte, or Charlie as she is called in her younger years. Her teacher in New Jersey saw Charlie as influential, with an ‘exceptionally forceful personality’ that had been used in a positive way, but had started to manifest in questionable practices. She is seen to be the ringleader, the ‘leader of the clique’, when something goes horribly wrong. Beth is defensive, still seeing her youngest as a little girl. Charlie went from being ‘Miss Popular, teacher’s pet and all-round parents’ favourite, to being the meanest girl in sixth grade’.
Fortuitously the family move back to Australia for Dan’s work, after over a decade in America, to Newcastle where Dan grew up and his working-class parents still live. Beth’s relationship with mother-in-law Margie is strained. There her husband is ‘a little less hers, a little less theirs, when he’s around his mother’, deferring and acquiescing to her not-quite demands. And then Beth’s own mother will be a bit further away, but much closer than she has been, and their relationship also has its issues.
Charlotte, as she now prefers to be called, quickly susses out the hierarchy at Hunter Ladies’ College (HLC), and aligns herself with the three popular girls, who welcome her into their fold, and they become like a ‘hydra-headed multi-limbed beast’ with one mind.
One of the girls in Charlotte’s class, Sophie, doesn’t fit in at HLC, even after three years. She is asthmatic, overweight and shy. She is unattractive and awkward, physically and socially. But her musical talent sets her apart. She is picked on by the ‘bitches’ either actively or by omission. Charlotte is curious about her, and then when their mothers meet and arrange a playdate, they connect. Charlotte tries to keeps their relationship from her other friends. She works hard at establishing herself and gaining the approval of her peers as well as her new teachers.
Sophie’s parents policeman Steve and ex-lawyer Andi, dote on new baby brother Gus, the much wished for second child, a son, that took such a long time coming. Andi sometimes resented the time she had to give Sophie, tearing her away from Gus. Sophie appeared to be fine, immersing herself in her music, and when Andi thinks maybe something is not right, she doesn’t have ‘the energy to dig any further’. She ‘needed peace, quiet, time to concentrate on Gus – and that’s what Sophie, always so accommodating, never any trouble, gave her’.
Beth, despite being responsible for the renovation of their new home, is restless and wants more now that she has the option to work. She does wonder if she was happier when she had less choice. The stay at home mum versus the working mum, with their respective benefits and downfalls for kids and women are portrayed well, showing the desire for a ‘separate existence, but still having the pressures of home and family’.
Then it shows that the dares that young people do, now with social media being so rampant, can go so horribly wrong. The ‘online world can reveal the inner nice guy as well as the far more prevalent inner monster’. Life for teenagers today with peer pressure, the queen bees and wannabes is depicted with great accuracy, showing how bitchy girls can be.
The ‘compromises wrought by marriage and motherhood’, mother guilt, and the risk of being accused of ‘irresponsibly overindulgent parenting’, are all represented in the actions and thoughts of both Beth and Andi, that all ring true. That there are two sides to every story, but when someone’s child is targeted, or accused, maternal instincts step in.
Issues of who and what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are raised. That ‘being good is more than a list of “nots” – not lying, not cheating, not stealing, not murdering – that it is also about doing good, about being kind, about understanding that what the girls do affects others. … Because if good children are proof of good parenting, then what about bad children’.
When parents do their best, ‘more than what’s expected’, can they be blamed for their child’s actions? That sometimes people are not who we think they are, that parents can be ‘so fixated on their children being who they want them to be that they only see what they want to see’, expect their ‘return on their investment … all the hours of violin and ballet and rugby and art or whatever, plus the classes in self-esteem and the visits to the psychologist’. That this generation is seen to have ‘had everything provided for [them] except a moral compass’ and need to have more kindness, humility and conscience.
This is a book for this generation of parents dealing with teenagers, wanting to fit in and overshadowed by the ever present social media.