I’ve had Annabel by Kathleen Winter and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides sitting in my reading stack for ages and yet the just released Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin is the first novel I’ve read about a hermaphrodite (referred to more commonly now as ‘intersex’).
It’s the story of Max Walker. He’s the ‘golden boy’ – attractive, intelligent, athletic, the perfect son, the perfect friend and the guy that all the girls at school have a crush on. Max lives with his parents, Karen and Steve, and his brother, Daniel. His mother, Karen, is a highly successful criminal lawyer, who works hard to maintain a facade of ‘having it all’. Steve is also a successful lawyer, so much so that he is running for Parliament.
“…..i don’t smoke pot. i can’t anyway, even if i wanted to, because of dad and Mum. They needed me to keep out of trouble, to be good. They are lawyers, and they work hard and are in the paper a lot…. People would write about us if i did something like that. Mum and i call it ‘doing a Prince Harry.’ ‘don’t do a Prince Harry on me’ she says. i wouldn’t do it anyway.”
And no, those are not typos, that’s a direct quote.
But not all is perfect in the Walkers carefully constructed lives. They have a secret. Max was born intersex. He identifies as a boy and has been raised as such. When a family friend abuses Max’s trust in the most horrific way, Max and his parents are forced to consider the nature of their well-kept secret.
Without giving away key elements of the plot (and there are a few twists and turns to keep you reading) it’s worth acknowledging that this book raises a number of important issues about sexuality, identity and acceptance for teenagers (although ultimately it is the grown-ups whose prejudices are challenged in Golden Boy). For this reason alone, I don’t want to turn people off reading it. However, there were aspects of the story that really didn’t work for me and as a result, got in the way of what otherwise would have been a fascinating and heartbreaking story.
“…it’s no use asking why questions of sexuality and gender give people the creeps, and it’s no use blaming it on society and saying it should change, because nothing is going to change about high school…. nothing is going to change about my high school and make it okay for people to know the truth about me.”
First and foremost, the ‘Stepford family’ scenario was too farfetched. Yes, both parents were high-profile lawyers but to also be so naive? How could Karen and Steve allow their intersex child to head into adolescence without any support, information or health care? For that matter, how did Max get so far into adolescence without ‘issues’? Did the parents ever have a discussion with their son about sex? Would they make an apparently uninformed decision to stop hormone treatment for Max because it seemed to make him cranky? Max apparently identified as a boy but what happened when he was a baby? A newborn does not ‘identify’ as either gender so at some point Karen and Steve dressed Max in blue (as opposed to Maxine in pink). How is it that Max’s brother does not know about Max being intersex and yet a family friend does?
Although many of these questions are addressed toward the end of the novel (in an interesting and plausible way), it’s a lot to ask of readers to suspend their judgement of Max’s parents and their actions until the end when the pieces fall into place (somewhat).
In creating a ‘perfect’ family, Tarttelin doesn’t falter, even in the scenes between Max and his precocious ten-year-old brother, Daniel. Apparently Max likes to hang out with Daniel. Really? I’m impressed. The interactions between family members are stilted and unlikely. The interactions between Max and his friends (and his girlfriend, Sylvie) are far more plausible.
These issues aside, there are a number of scenes that are very well written and one in particular that I found extremely confronting and difficult reading.
2/5 I feel like this could have been a much, much better book if Tarttelin had made Max’s family more realistic.
Lots of references to ‘teenage’ food in Golden Boy – pizza, cookies and soft drink but in one scene Max’s mum makes his favourite – a tuna sandwich. You don’t need a recipe for a good tuna sandwich as long as you have plenty of mayo on hand as well as something for crunch – some people liked corn mixed through a tuna sandwich mix but I prefer thinly sliced celery.