There are moments in life where something happens and it changes everything.
Raised for fourteen years as a boy, Alex's parents never told her she was born intersex, but she just told them what she always knew: she is a girl. They did not take it well; her mother had a meltdown, her father walked out. Hoping to start over Alex enrolls at a new school, one where nobody has to know that she is anything but just another girl.
Even with the rise of discussions on diversity, intersex stories and voices are still rarely heard, it is something that even as a veteran of the internet I know pathetically little about, my very basic understanding stretches only as far as knowing that to be intersex is to be born with reproductive anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions for either sex. It is of course important to educate ourselves about diversity in all its forms and reading fiction is one way of doing that, so though this is not an own-voices story (I don’t know of any, if you do please let me know!) I figured it was still a place to start. Sadly, it was something of a let-down.
This is a YA novel written by Australian author Alyssa Brugman, following Alex, a fourteen year old girl who is intersex and trans, in the days and weeks after she makes the decision to live as the gender she has always known she was. Though having an intersex main character is the main selling point of this book, the character herself is unaware of it for the majority, never has her own condition explained to her and is treated generally like a transwoman with the rest all but ignored. There is some very brief mention of sexual organs during the mother’s chapters, and Alex’s “noodle” is mentioned weirdly frequently, but no real information is ever given, her being intersex seems to be simply a plot device with no actual depth or nuance.
Though I did enjoy Alex's voice, she was funny and smart, she was not always likable and her character was a bit all over the place, some strange cross between a hyper-feminine girly girl and a horny teen boy. She was written at times almost like two different people in one, having moments of acting hugely inappropriately but blaming boy Alex like he was another person, putting down any boyish action to a separate identity entirely, even talking to him in her head. It was like she was some hodgepodge of assumptions about intersex people rather than an actual representation, seeming to show a lack of research on the part of the author, even I know that being intersex or trans is not the same as having multiple personalities.
And of course then there were the other characters. I hated most of the ones I can remember and spent a great deal of time wanting to punch a variety of them in the face. Many of them were one dimensional, barely sketched, all I could tell you about the love interest for example was that she was pretty, non-white and liked to run. Alex’s parents were both horribly abusive in different ways and to different extents, and while there are plenty of abusive parents out there this pair were just paper thin caricatures whose surface level awfulness had nothing behind it to make them feel authentic, her mother especially was just horrendous, bordering on being a moustache twirling pantomime villain, practically frothing at the mouth and followed by loud hissing whenever she appeared on the stage.
Something else that bothered me was a lack of acknowledgement and consequences for horrible actions and words. There are several occasions where the burden of responsibility is pushed on to Alex by her parents, that it’s because of her that her dad has no friends, that she wasn’t told because she never asked, and it is not always acknowledged that what they are doing is not ok. There is another character who behaves like a creep and actively outs someone when asked not to, but is met with no real consequences and barely a moment's discussion. There are outright crimes that are met with little more than a gasp and a moving swiftly onward. In a book like this, aimed at teens, some of whom will be having similar experiences, this is a real let down.
The story itself was fairly interesting at parts but there were far too many things that had me rolling my eyes, taking me out of the story as my suspension of disbelief was stretched. A fourteen year old managing to change schools without her parents knowledge, hire a lawyer and agree to work to pay him is all just a little silly, something easily fixable by aging her up a couple of years, while the entire modelling plot was just far too contrived and easy. From the teacher randomly and arbitrarily picking them, to the omigosh you could be a real model, to the handing over of $1000 to a young teen with no time, agreement, discussion or parental involvement, it was all just ridiculous and never felt like a realistic event but more of a plot convenience to give Alex a means of financial independence for a teenage fantasy ending.
But it wasn’t all bad either, there were a few things I did like. Strangely enough considering how much I did not like the mother as a character, her POV chapters were some of the best parts of the book, taking the form of a sort of mumsnet-like site where she was posting about what was happening and getting replies. Like a lot of the internet most of the comments were awful but there were a few bright spots too, pointing out mis-gendering and seriously calling out the ethics of giving a teenager medication without their knowledge or consent. Though I wanted to shout at these pages quite a bit they were easily the realist part of the story, with each commenter easy to form vividly in my mind as solid and distinct people.
Despite the hugely teenage wish fulfillment aspect and utter abruptness of it, I did like that the ending wasn’t all tied in a neat bow, that the final message was about removing yourself from abusive relationships and toxic situations, and that that is ok. Far too often in media aimed at young people the message of family being the most important thing no matter what is hammered in, with no regard for those who really would be better off without theirs. The physical and mental well-being of the child should come first, a very important message, especially for LGBTQIA+ kids who are more likely to be victims of abuse.
So then, what did I think over all? Even for a YA novel where some allowance has to be made for the youth of its target audience, this was just too over-simplified and yet over the top at the same time. It desperately needed to be a hundred or so pages longer as it just didn’t have the space to explore anything properly or to let the characters develop, leading to poor caricatures and out of the blue developments of supreme ease. This could have been great, with a trans, intersex, lesbian protagonist this could have been a source of important information and helped shine a light on a severely underrepresented group. Instead it’s a bit of a dud, completely lacking in depth, with a few redeeming features. And I didn’t even learn anything.
Trigger Warnings: Child abuse, transphobia
Trigger Warnings: Child abuse, transphobia