rachel gold’s “being emily”: a book review

warning: this review contains spoilers. if you don’t like it, don’t read it. i’m not Kirkus Reviews…but you get my pithy observations for free. oh, also, i’m back. hi!

sometimes you have really low expectations for something, and i confess that before i read Autumn’s review of this book i wasn’t exactly thinking it was going to be great. see, cis people write about trans people all the time with pretty disastrous results, especially when writing about trans women, and doubly so when writing about trans teenagers and/or children.  thus, i approached Being Emily with less trepidation than i would have because someone i respect signed off on its quality. as literature goes, i’m probably going to be especially sensitive when it comes to a book about a trans teenage girl, given that i’ve lived through that experience, and i’m probably most likely to view it in a harsh, critical light. in other words, i approach this kind of thing loaded for bear and expect to be disappointed. that said,  i loved, loved, loved this book no matter what expectation i brought to it, and i strongly recommend it. 

sometimes, you see, even a harsh, critical light can find few flaws…which feels like something Claire, the titular Emily’s girlfriend, would have said in the book. Emily, who at least starts the book out as a so-called Chris, lives in a fictitious suburban wasteland that could be anywhere but is in this case Minnesota (though i’m not sure when the less fictitious Annandale sprouted a mall…), along with her rather proper nuclear family and a high school life that at first seems straight out of the American Dream. naturally, because there’s a book, you know things didn’t turn out quite as expected, because stories about boring lives don’t get published, as much as it seems like there’s a lot of YA that tries to be as boring as possible these days.

as you might expect if you read the book, the character i identified with most strongly was Claire (that line about an inkblot in a sea of color was very much me outside of school and Claire’s sense and idea of gender nonconformity is a lot like mine) and  Ms. Gold’s level of detail is just amazing, including a perfect précis of what it feels like to have a therapist ask you what name you really wanted to be called. i also remember with disturbing clarity trying to introduce to some strange woman the idea that i wanted to be a girl and how ridiculous and terrifying that felt inside my head, and this book gets that just perfect.

what else was awesome? i adored the way that Dr. Mendel works not just as a compassionate character but as a plot device for introducing a lot of technical nuts and bolts in a manner that feels credible. it takes a good storyteller to nail introducing important details like this, and Ms. Gold is darn good.  i also liked the job she did with a supporting character, Natalie…not just keeping Natalie in balance to the rest of the story but the portrayal of her experience.  i know a girl a lot like Natalie whose father’s acceptance largely comes through avoidance and that the things Natalie says and does impart subtly a lot of what you need to know about the mechanics of passing for the new-at-this and perplexed plus the weirdness of trying to cover for someone’s gender with the tables turned…i’ve been there, and Claire does something pretty hilarious in response.

i ended up feeling a touch sorry for Emily, which is probably not the reaction that you’d expect but the reality of differential experiences always ends up controlling how i see trans characters in books. her gender enforcement experiences were much more in reaction to deviance than what i lived through, but that’s okay because this is a story and we look to stories for escape and to look at lives different from our own…that’s the purpose of fiction, and the reality that Emily ends up happy and well-adjusted  makes it kind of awesome. i won’t tell you how she gets to that place in her life because you should read the book, but if you have Annie On My Mind-itis like me you won’t get a crappy ending that makes you feel hopeless for being queer. in fact, i’m going to lay it down that Ms. Gold has written the first fiction book i’ve read about a trans female protagonist with what would commonly be considered a happy ending, and it’s a damn good book to boot.

Ms. Gold covers a lot of ground in a relatively short novel, in fact short enough that i read it in the better part of three hours, and outside the first chapter (more on that later) i had nary a complaint about the writing and the narrative, easy to follow and economical with verbiage. it’s always nice to read well-written YA from a new author regardless of the content because let me be honest with you, there’s a new Twilight wannabe every week and a half and it’s dumbing down the genre, so i’ll give you a completely non-trans-related reason to buy the book: Gold is a really, really good writer and YA needs more good writers, so i hope to see a lot more from her no matter the subject matter. i haven’t enjoyed another YA book (and i read a lot of YA) quite as much since Malinda Lo’s Ash. 

the largest complaint i had was indeed the first chapter, amusingly exactly what Autumn warned me about in recommending the book: its editing makes it choppy and throws a lot of story detail out really fast, and if you don’t watch the details carefully you end up going back and referring to it, but the degree to which it was edited makes it feel disjointed and like you want to power through it. don’t do it, you have to pay attention for some of the details to make sense later. don’t say i didn’t warn you!

i strongly recommend Being Emily and really hope you’ll read it. i was disappointed to find none of my local libraries had copies yet, but i managed to convince a couple of friends who have a few bucks to remedy that problem. if you’re looking for a good way to benefit your local trans youth and don’t know a better way to do so, i suggest you consider buying a copy (or four) and donating them to your local library system. no matter what, though, i greatly suggest you read this book. just in case you need a reminder in the conclusion sentence of a review.