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.