Being Emily by Rachel Gold 2012 Bella Books 210 pp.
Christopher Hesse appears to be a typical 16-year-old: restoring classic cars, a member of the swim team, a good sibling to his brother(or is it sister) a perfect child to his mother, and has a “sort of” girlfriend, Claire, who dresses like a Goth and makes flippant references to being a bisexual or lesbian to shock her mother. No one hears the scripted codes Chris uses to automate daily conversations, to maintain a certain facade of being and protect Chris’s true self. For Chris, being labeled a boy has never made sense. Chris learns how to hide this knowledge, wondering if anyone will understand she is female, despite being born a biological male. Chris Hesse is really Emily Christina.
Emily continues to live the lie—until it becomes intolerable. She commits to telling Claire her secret. On that same day, her psychology teacher introduces a new chapter on gender identity. Her mother demands that she see a therapist for her depression. The therapist is convinced Emily needs to bond with her father. But then, she finds a friend online, Natalie, a male-to-female transsexual.
Rachel Gold has crafted an extraordinarily poignant novel in Being Emily. The title could easily have been “Ordinary Moments,” taken from the last sentence in the epilogue. Each character arc is composed of those indescribable periods of times within ordinary life where an individual discovers an internal willingness and determination to experience the stresses and dangers that lead to self-awareness and self-realization.
The chapters chronicling Claire’s struggles with religious, emotional and social mores are worth the price of this novel alone. While maintaining Emily as the protagonist, Gold has created a character in Claire who intensifies readers’ emotions, pulling them into the girls’ joint journey. Claire’s chapters do not preach. Rather they illustrate moment-to-moment incidents of inner turmoil, struggles to understand, the importance of keeping to one’s faith in the light of factual information. The power of Claire’s experiences as they flow and blend with Emily’s’ trials results in the depiction of true friendship and love.
Gold does an excellent job of paralleling the interrelationships between differing family structures. Emily has both parents and a younger brother; Claire is the only child of a divorced mother. The two families, unbeknownst to each other, push their children toward similar goals.
Transsexual teenagers need the assistance of friends, family, psychological and medical professionals. At such an age, acquiring a support network can be a daunting task, particularly when the individual does not know where to go. Gold provides Emily with an online community where young transgender persons are not only in similar predicaments, but are achieving or have reached their goals. The psychologist Emily’s mother insists upon to treat her depression may make the reader cringe at just how detrimental an inappropriate professional relationship can be. When Emily connects with a psychologist who understands and agrees to assist in her coming out process, the reader cannot help but cheer. As Claire accepts and comes to enjoy Emily’s connections within the transgender community, the overall theme of the novel deepens.
Despite some minor writing flaws—inconsistencies in time-lines and descriptions of settings, contradictory statements, and sentence structure issues—readers will be engrossed, enchanted, and unable to stop reading until the very end. The unique mechanism of depicting Emily’s speech as computer code is striking, defining the character distinctively. The careful and deliberate spacing of Claire’s chapters are extraordinary; resulting is a pacing of action that is gripping. There is definitely gold to be found in this well-constructed novel. [Review was originally published by Lambda Literary, September 2012. Republished here with permission.]
Lydia Harris has a BA and MS in psychology, as well as a Master’s in library science. She specializes in reviews of lesbian fiction and LGBT general and multicultural young adult fiction.