Friday, January 16, 2015

Golden Boy

Abigail Tarttelin
Atria Books
Reviewed by Nancy
3 out of 5 stars


Max Walker is a golden boy. Attractive, intelligent, and athletic, he’s the perfect son, the perfect friend, and the perfect crush for the girls in his school. He’s even really nice to his little brother. Karen, Max’s mother, is determined to maintain the fa├žade of effortless excellence she has constructed through the years, but now that the boys are getting older, she worries that the fa├žade might soon begin to crumble. Adding to the tension, her husband Steve has chosen this moment to stand for election to Parliament. The spotlight of the media is about to encircle their lives.

The Walkers are hiding something, you see. Max is special. Max is different. Max is intersex. When an enigmatic childhood friend named Hunter steps out of his past and abuses his trust in the worst possible way, Max is forced to consider the nature of his well-kept secret. Why won’t his parents talk about it? What else are they hiding from Max about his condition and from each other? The deeper Max goes, the more questions emerge about where it all leaves him and what his future holds, especially now that he’s starting to fall head over heels for someone for the first time in his life. Will his friends accept him if he is no longer the Golden Boy? Will anyone ever want him—desire him—once they know? And the biggest one of all, the question he has to look inside himself to answer: Who is Max Walker, really?

Written by twenty-six-year-old rising star Abigail Tarttelin, Golden Boy is a novel you’ll read in one sitting but will never forget; at once a riveting tale of a family in crisis, a fascinating exploration of identity, and a coming-of-age story like no other.

My Review

I feel like a big old meany for not liking this book as much as my friends did.

It is wordy and repetitive, the multiple viewpoints drove me nuts, and the characters lacked substance and authenticity. Though I really admire Max’s parents’ decision not to make their child undergo surgery to correct his intersex condition, I could strangle them for being so secretive about it and allowing Max to grow up and navigate the difficult world of adolescence without any discussion or guidance about sex, relationships, pregnancy, or gender identity. The thing is, when parents don’t talk about this stuff with their kids, they will learn from their friends, or the media, and likely pick up all kinds of incorrect information. What I didn’t understand about Max, particularly in this age of information, was why he showed very little curiosity, didn’t access the internet, or read books. And how does he manage to be the perfect son, the perfect brother, the perfect student, and the perfect boyfriend without any “issues”?

Yet, he is not. Very early on, a childhood friend sexually assaults 16-year-old Max. It is the consequences of that disturbing incident and the fact that his father is running for political office and doesn’t need any negative publicity that make things very complicated for Max.

“I am a normal guy. I am a normal guy who would never have a problem like this. Like what? Like nothing. It doesn’t exist. I am a normal sixteen-year-old. I listen to music. I wear my iPod. I laugh with my friends. I dream about kissing Sylvie Clark. I kiss Sylvie Clark. I am a brother. I am not a sister. I am not an everything. I am not a nothing. I have no big choices to make. I am a teenager, and my biggest job is to be normal. I can’t look at myself in the mirror anymore, or at any reflection of mine in glass. And I don’t know why.”

What I did like about this book, in comparison to Annabel, is that it tackles the issues of gender identity with more sensitivity and compassion. I just wish that the author’s research about intersexuality was presented throughout the novel organically and not solely through the voice of Max’s doctor, which made it feel like forced teaching moments.

As I mentioned earlier, there were problems with characterization. The story was narrated by Max, as well as his parents, his younger brother, Daniel, his girlfriend, Sylvie, and his doctor. Max’s parents were caricatures rather than real people. His brother was way too clever for his 10 years and had more sophisticated vocabulary than anyone else. And Sylvie, who was quite an interesting character and very supportive of Max, didn’t get nearly enough page time.

This book made me think and made me feel, but the prose lacked the grace and elegance of Annabel. I’m still waiting for the perfect book about intersexuality.