Review: Golden Boy, Abigail Tarttelin

Well, first up, we just do not have enough books with intersex protagonists, and as always happens when representation is lacking, that puts an impossible amount of pressure on any single book. It’s hard to criticize a book like Abigail Tarttelin’s Golden Boy, even when I think criticisms are merited, because mainstream fiction rarely, rarely features intersex protagonists (and even rarelier do you find #ownvoices intersex fiction, so if y’all know any, get at me in the comments). So let me start by saying what I did like about this book.

Golden Boy

First of all, Tarttelin lets her protagonist, Max, feel generally okay about being intersex. He worries about sex and children and loneliness in the context of his intersexuality, but mostly, he knows who he is and feels fine about it. The uncertainty he faces about his identity generally comes from outside him — his parents, his cousin Hunter, his classmates and girlfriend Sylvie.

More broadly, Golden Boy acknowledges the insufficiency of a gender binary. Max talks with his doctor (a nice doctor, oh God it was such a relief for him to have a kind, smart, sympathetic doctor) about the science on intersexuality, what we do and don’t know, and what areas are under-researched because intersex folks often get lumped in with trans folks, to the probable benefit of neither. Tarttelin isn’t voyeuristic about Max’s condition or the various health issues he faces in the book, but she’s also not coy about them: Dr. Verma tells Max (and us) in very plain language what’s happening with his body and what it means.

SO. That was the good stuff. For more, here’s a review of Golden Boy by intersex writer and OII-USA1 executive director Hida Viloria.

Now for my gripes. The first, and biggest, is a marketing gripe. When I read about Golden Boy online, the implication of the descriptive copy was that the book was primarily about a family coping with their social circle discovering that Max is intersex. It is actually not about that at all. In fact what it’s about is Max’s rape by a family friend and the fallout and recovery from that. He gets raped in the first few chapters, and it is a several-pages-long rape scene for which I was emotionally unprepared after this several-decades-long year we’ve been having. THUS. If you are someone who does not choose to read graphic rape scenes, you may wish to give Golden Boy a miss.

(Rape culture is so weird, y’all. I started reading Golden Boy to take a break from another book I was reading in which a sexual assault had just occurred. When the rape scene in Golden Boy started, I felt really shitty and miserable about it but I kept reading because it felt like it would be rude to stop reading this Socially Important Book. Rude to whom? Rude how? I don’t even know.)

Anyway. I kept reading because I figured the worst was already behind me, which was true. Tarttelin is respectful of Max’s feelings and his recovery process,2 if a trifle didactic, and even though the resolution of this storyline is awfully tidy and suggests a level of closure that I found improbable, I didn’t have any complaints with the author’s treatment of the emotional fallout.

A few other things: Max uses the word retarded at one point. (His younger brother, Daniel, is clearly on the autism spectrum, though nobody explicitly says so, which made it even more depressing to see the word go unchallenged.) His girlfriend, Sylvie, who is portrayed in a very positive light, refers to some female athletes at her school as “like, steroid aggressive…crazy, butch try-hards.” And in a book where Max is perpetually pushing back against the idea that being intersex means he must be gay or bi, it’s uncomfortable that the only character in the book who is gay is also a rapist.

So I mean, a mixed bag. I wish we were not at a place where very few books have to carry the burden of representation for a group as widely diverse in biology and experience as the intersex community. By saying Golden Boy was not the book for me, I worry that I’m pushing readers away from one of very, very few books with a respectful depiction of an intersex protagonist. I don’t have a good solution for this, except that I hope we can continue to support a diverse book world that can lighten each book’s individual burden of representation.

  1. the American branch of the Organisation Internationale des Intersexués
  2. I’m putting this caveat in a footnote because I’m not sure whether it’s a fair reading of the book. Max worries a lot about whether he fought “hard enough” during the rape. There is a thru-line in the book that Max tends to be amicable and go along with what’s happening, partly as a result of some parental stuff that happened when he was a kid. At several points he is called a pushover and relates the concept of being a pushover to his perceived failure to fight his rapist hard enough. As far as I can recall, nobody says “there is no fighting hard enough; you said no and saying no is enough.” It’s clear that Tarttelin knows this was rape and knows it wasn’t in any way Max’s fault — but still, I felt icky that there wasn’t a counterpoint in the text to this line of Max’s thinking.
  • Jackie Bailey

    It’s interesting to read your thoughts on this book, because I loved it. I get your points about the objectionable language and about Max’s lack of fight, but overall the book showed that Max was the victim in all this. It didn’t do anything to glorify rape and showed the rapist as the villain, so I personally didn’t have a problem with the way the rape was portrayed in this book.

    It is rare to find a book that describes the thoughts and emotions an intersex character, and it was all done so such sensitivity. Sorry you weren’t as impressed as I was.

    • I’m sorry too! I probably got the recommendation from you, now that I’m thinking about it? I agree that overall the rape is handled very respectfully and is not glorified at all. I just really, really wish the book had been marketed differently, so that I’d have known what I was getting going into the book. I’m pretty much out on reading books with graphic sexual assault (and I’m very close to out on reading books with *any* sexual assault), which isn’t a negative reflections on books that have that element — just a personal reading choice. So it was really upsetting and jarring to encounter a rape scene right off the bat, and it did affect my feelings about the book as a whole. 🙁

      I really *really* appreciated Tarttelin’s depiction of her intersex protagonist. Like you I thought it was done with remarkable sensitivity, and I’m glad the book exists, even if it didn’t work for me (cause marketing).

  • So glad to read your thoughts on this one! I read this right after it came out a few years ago and, like Jackie, ADORED it, but I can definitely see where your concerns are coming from. That rape scene is particularly brutal, and definitely not something you expect going into something like this.

    • It really wasn’t, and I wish I’d known in advance that it was coming. I feel like the marketing made it really difficult for me to read the book on its own terms, if that makes any sense? I kept trying to read the book I’d expected it to be.

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    I have never heard of this book before. It does sound like a mixed bag. The question is, that in spite of that, is it a worthwhile read?

    • Oh, for sure! A worthwhile read that I’d probably not have read if I’d known it was mostly about the aftermath of a rape. So I would say, read it by all means, it is one of very close to zero books I’ve read with an intersex protagonist and the author is great about that. The way the book was marketed meant that the rape scene caught me very much off guard and really affected my ability to enjoy/love the book. But now you know more than Past Me knew, so you can make a more informed decision about when and if you want to read it!

  • I’ve been meaning to read this forever, and your review gives a bit of a different perspective that the overall mad praise I’ve otherwise associated with this book. Super interesting, and I’m still definitely going to read it, but keep much of this in mind. Thanks for the thoughtful review. 🙂

    • I’m glad you’re still going to read it! When I write a mixed review like this, I’m always really worried that I’m preventing people from reading what I think was genuinely a worthwhile book that just did not entirely work for me. So yay, I’m glad you’re reading it, and I’m glad you know what to expect from it going in.

  • Alley

    Several pages long? Yeah, I may have to give this one a miss, DESPITE things that may be wonderful with it (also may miss for some of the less wonderful things you call out, though it’s mostly the rape thing I don’t know if I can do.)

    • Yeah, I don’t blame you. If I’d known it was going to feature a lengthy, graphic rape I might have missed it — or I might not! Who knows? I’d at least have gone into it knowing what to expect. :/

  • Akilah

    Footnote #2 is my pet peeve in MOST books, tbqh.

    • To be fair, I read almost zero books where rape happens. Usually if someone starts getting raped, I peace out of the book. I’m not mad at the authors for writing rape scenes, I’m just done with it on a personal level. (I haven’t read Courtney Summers for this reason, even though I hear she’s great.) So I don’t really have a sense of how it’s typically treated.

      • Akilah

        I should have been clearer. I meant that I hate when authors don’t offer an explicit counterpoint to something troubling in a book. For example, if a character suffers from depression, I appreciate if the author/narrative notes that there is therapy or help available even if the characters don’t make use of it.

  • Simon T (StuckinaBook.com)

    Sidenote on ‘retarded’ – I complained about the use of this word in some video by a US comedian a while ago, and was roundly told that it was fine to use in American English. Glad to know that this isn’t really the case.

    Other sidenote on footnote 2 – I think I would be fine with this, as the author isn’t selling a lie. I guess we don’t need moral beacons in every novel, right? (Sort of similarly, I would be fine with the gay character being the rapist, cos they’re a character rather than an exemplar… but I know that’s a bigger question that divides people a bit.)

    • I’d have been more fine with the gay character being the rapist if Max hadn’t spent so much time vehemently assuring everyone he wasn’t gay (because people keep asking). And I absolutely don’t think the author believes that gay folks are evil or rapists — I think she was trying to get at the assumptions people make about the intersections of gender identity and sexuality. The end result was just a teeny bit uncomfortable for me, is all.

      Also, whoever told you “retarded” was fine to use in American English was nonsense. It’s not fine, American English has been done with that word for yeeeeeears.

  • Your general feelings about the book and what it means if you didn’t like it mirror my own feelings about Swing Time. Knowing that there is a dearth of novels written by POC about POC characters made me hesitate to say definitively that I did not like the novel because I felt it was a reflection on me and may indicate some hidden biases that may or may not exist. It is frustrating that because we should be able to be honest about our reactions to books (and we are) without having to question whether doing so relays an unspoken message. What weird times we live in.

    • I mean — my attitude isn’t that I don’t feel I have space to be honest about my reactions to books, although I do try to be aware of my privileges when I’m writing about books by authors from historically marginalized groups. It’s more that I wish I didn’t have caveats to give with this review. In particular, since my response to the book was heavily informed by a misleading marketing choice, I feel frustrated that marketing decisions led to this huge expectations gap that made me resent the book almost from the jump. You know? And while I would resent misleading marketing in any case, I particularly resent it for a book like Golden Boy where it’s one of so incredibly few books with intersex protagonists. I wish that I’d loved the book better, basically! I’m sad I didn’t love it better. Maybe I did a bad job of conveying that. :/

      I’d also say that if I do write about books in a way that relays the unspoken message that I am uneducated / insensitive / biased against a marginalized group like intersex folks, I really hope that people would call me on it. You know? Like I can never get better and eradicate internalized prejudices that I haven’t realized I’ve got.

      ALSO also, I read a Twitter thread one time by a Latina YA author who was talking about how heavily her work was informed by magic realism and Latin American literary conventions, and how she’d seen a lot of reviews criticizing her book for elements she’d put in there deliberately that were part of the Latin American literary tradition she came up in. And she said she didn’t mind the criticism or the idea that her type of writing wouldn’t work for some people, but that people acted like the conventions she was using were mistakes of a rookie writer. Like if someone reviewed Passengers and said “the idea of the ship they’re on is preposterous, only a foolish writer would come up with such a thing” — that would betray lack of knowledge of the trope of generation ships in science fiction. So I think about that a lot when I’m writing about books, and I try to be cognizant of that and be cautious about saying “this was a failure” vs “this didn’t work for me.” With Golden Boy, I truly think the marketing of the book (not the book itself) was a failure and a disservice to an important book.

      Also, I wasn’t wild about Swing Time either. I have a whole big review coming up where I try to unpack why that is.

      SORRY THIS REPLY IS SO LONG. As you can perhaps tell, I think about this stuff a lot. :p

      • No worries! It means you are consciously aware of the issues, even if no one has any easy answers. I can see how the marketing is misleading and yes, this does the book a huge disservice. It does the entire genre a disservice. Readers are intelligent; there is no need to pretend the book is about one thing rather than provide the truth from the very beginning. It will just piss off readers and cause them to shy away from other books marketed by them.

      • Also, your comment about the Latina YA author had me reflecting on comments made by my husband. I get so tired of people making assumptions about other people’s experiences just because they have not experienced such things themselves. I like that you throw in your reasons for why something does not work for you; I do agree that it is incredibly important to do so. It doesn’t mean the story is bad; it just means there is something in your past (experience/value/belief) that prevents you from accepting it as it is. Empathy. We need more of it in this world, and my favorite reviewers are the ones who bring empathy into their reviews, like you do.

  • Read Diverse Books

    Yikes, pages-long rape scene? I would be very uncomfortable reading that and question the whole time if it was necessary to be that graphic at all. And the note about the R word being said in the book…reminds me of how it was also said in Gaby, A Girl In Pieces and how it wasn’t challenged either. Thankfully it didn’t happen again, but it was pretty disappointing to see.

  • Wow. I don’t think I could’ve handled a pages-long rape scene, especially without knowing it was in there. I’ve thinking about books that make progress in some areas (such as by representing a group that society typically ignores) while faltering in others areas (such as by using the ‘R’ word or perpetuating victim-blaming). I don’t want to hold books to impossibly high standards — and as a writer, I always fear making a mistake that offends people — but it’s tough to wholeheartedly recommend books that make these kinds of errors.

  • Interesting to read your thoughts on this. I’ve had it on my to-read list a long time, but had really forgotten why at this point. Your review brings up some good points – thanks for such a thoughtful review!

  • I know what you mean about having a hard time saying anything bad about a book like this! I’ve felt the same way reading books about diverse protagonists. I’m too nervous about sex scenes to pick this up, but I appreciated your nuanced review.