This was a difficult book for me. When I finished it, my first thought was, “I didn’t like it.” But then I took some time to try to figure out why I had that reaction. My initial answer was that there was no character or situation I could relate to so I could never really get into it. While that is true, it did make me further question myself as to whether it could be applied. I mean, I read The Removed which is about a Native American family who experienced severe trauma when one of their children is killed by police. There’s nothing of my own specific experience (other than dealing with grief) in that book and yet, I rated it highly.
From the title and after reading the book flap, I knew this book was a story about transgender people. I assumed it was written by a transgender person. I feel conflicted to share that when I looked at the author photo of Torrey Peters, I changed my assumption and thought she was cisgender because she didn’t look likea trans woman. That was my first mistake. Then I read the dedication of the book which says, “To divorced cis women, who, like me, had to face starting their life over…” I read it as if she were saying that she is also a divorced cis woman. So when I started reading, I was…offended? Stunned? Incredulous? that a cis woman would dare write about trans people like this, so deeply, so candidly. Then on page 167(!), halfway through the book, the character of Reese, a trans woman, reveals the philosophy behind the dedication. She says, “The only people who have anything worthwhile to say about gender are divorced cis women who have given up on heterosexuality but are still attracted to men…Divorce is a transition story. Of course, not all divorced women go through it. I’m talking about the ones who felt their divorce as a fall, or as a total reframing of their lives. The ones who have seen how the narratives given to them since girlhood have failed them, and who know there is nothing to replace it all. But who still have to move forward without investing in new illusions or turning bitter–all with no plan to guide them. That’s as close to a trans woman as you can get.”
With that, I looked up the author’s website and saw that she has written other trans stories, so I realized that she is trans herself and my reading of the book thus far then righted itself in my head, and I read the rest feeling better about the author’s observations though still feeling way out of my element as far as knowledge of this community. But that’s okay. I feel like I got to know even a little bit about these trans people. And I will say that the majority of the characters were white, and that the point is made that Black and Latinx trans people often have quite different experiences.
It’s also slightly controversial in that one of the characters, a trans woman named Amy, ‘detransitions’ to live as a man named Ames. What I found very interesting was that even though he ‘went back’ so to speak, he did not go back to the name his parents gave him at birth, which was James, which signified to me that he was indeed a different person even though he was living as his assigned gender, and that nearly all the people he knew while living as Amy, still saw him as and called him Amy. I think Amy/Ames’ backstory was sad and compelling. I felt very uncomfortable reading of Amy/Ames’ experiences as a teen and losing his virginity and dissociating during sex, something that is explained, and frankly seems awful. Also compelling was his experience hooking up with another man and going to a cross-dressing clothing store. That whole scenario and all of his emotions around it was like a small novel in itself. It was so nuanced, layered, and complicated.
Ames begins a relationship with Katrina, a divorced cisgender woman who is also his boss, and he gets her pregnant which surprises him since he was told when he was on hormones as Amy that he would become sterile. He then must ‘come out’ to Katrina which then sends her into all kinds of feelings. He also has to come to an understanding of what it means to have fathered a child while still being trans. It’s interesting that he puts it that he can be trans without doing trans. He gets the idea to invite Reese into their relationship in a way to be a mother to the child. He and Reese were in a lesbian relationship for five or so years and were very close to adopting or fostering (I can’t remember) a child because Reese consistently voiced her desire and intention to be a mother. Ames can’t imagine being a parent without her. Of course, Katrina has to give the okay to this extremely non-traditional parental triad.
As you can see there’s a lot going on. The author navigates it all very well, though she tends to include some odd tangents. Roxane Gay described some of the storytelling as “too…indulgent,” which I agree with. But the most extraordinary thing about this book, that I hope will not be extraordinary for very long, is that it centers trans people and this queer narrative. And while there is trauma, there is also joy and mundanity, sex and love and anger. It’s a book about womanhood, motherhood, fatherhood, parenting, queerness, marriage, divorce, miscarriage, pregnancy, baby registry, lovers, friends, and more.
After all of my personal analysis and reading reviews and others’ opinions of this book, I realized that it’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s that it was a subject matter so beyond my own realm of experience that I dismissed it out of hand – like so many people do when they come up against something that they don’t know. But once I got over myself and decided to dig in a little bit to try to learn, I realized that, for its main demographic, it’s a hell of an amazing book, and for the rest, it’s still a great book.