Maggie does everything she can to “preserve the relationship,” not reminding him she is underage, not mentioning his wife and kids. Soon he texts her: “I think I am falling in love with you.” He reads Maggie’s copy of “Twilight,” returning it doused in his cologne, with masses of yellow Post-it Note annotations. “I am your vampire lover,” he writes, “and you are my forbidden fruit.” She sleeps with the book.
On his 30th birthday, Maggie texts him around 7 a.m. “Happy Birthday!!!” By 8 a.m. his wife has seen the message, and the affair is over. Boom. When Knodel is named “North Dakota’s Teacher of the Year” in 2014, Maggie breaks her five years of silence and despair and tells her parents about the relationship. She goes to the police. Six months later her father slits his wrists and dies.
In court Knodel fingers a rosary and claims not to remember Maggie much during the year of their affair, but does recall that she was “needy” and had “issues.” He is acquitted on three of five charges of corrupting a minor. A mistrial is declared on the other two charges — owing to a juror’s sudden mysterious illness — alleging oral and digital penetration.
Knodel was reinstated with back pay and is currently teaching and coaching in the North Dakota public school system. Maggie, meanwhile, gains 30 pounds, survives on a cocktail of five drugs, drops out of college, plans her suicide by hanging, and waits tables. Despite everything, Maggie still loves her high school teacher. Cue Tammy Wynette.
It is Taddeo’s victory that we see Maggie’s tragedy: Knodel gave this girl the validation, the attention, that no one else ever had — or perhaps ever will. Her blessing, her curse.
This is Taddeo’s first book, but she has garnered two Pushcart Prizes for her dense, disturbing short stories about women. Here, but for a few quoted conversations, she writes her narratives in the third person, in her own dramatic, often overreaching, staccato prose. While the complex feelings of the women conveyed may well be true, the voice is categorically Taddeo’s, not theirs. Nevertheless, the result is effective and affecting. Strangely, she has elected to draw no conclusions. So here are a few of mine.