Four people in a small Vermont village are about to have their lives inexorably intertwined by the uncertainties of love . . . and the apparent absolutes of gender. Schoolteacher Allison Banks, the long-divorced mother of a teenager on the cusp of college, has at last fallen in love. The object of her desire Dana Stevens, a professor at the nearby university and her instructor for a summer film and literature course. Her daughter, Carly, watches with pleasure her mother's newfound happiness, but her ex-husband, Will, the president of Vermont Public Radio, is jealous. Still secretly in love with his ex-wife, he finds himself increasingly unsettled by the prospect of Allison's attachment to another man. Yet Dana is unlike anyone Allison has ever been with: attentive, gentle, kind -- and an exceptionally ardent lover. Moreover, it's clear that Dana cares just as deeply for Allison. The only stumbling block Dana has known always that in actuality he is a woman -- genitalia, plumbing, and perceptions be damned -- and he will soon be having a sex change operation.
The bestselling author of Midwives and The Law of Similars continues his tradition of incorporating social issues into his moving narratives. Transsexuality goes mainstream in this Scarlet Letter for a softer, gentler but more complicated age. Allison Banks--42 years old, heterosexual, long divorced, mother of a college student and a grade school teacher in a picturesque Vermont village--meets single, attractive, attentive, 35-year-old Dana Stevens when she takes his film class at a nearby college. Early on in the relationship, Dana confesses that he has always believed he was female, though he desires women, too--and he is soon to undergo a long-planned sex change operation. Despite this revelation, and despite her reservations, Allison invites Dana to move in with her, and they have great sex right up until the night before the operation in Colorado, where Allison has loyally accompanied Dana for post-op and moral support. On their return to Vermont, he--now physically and emphatically "she"--continues to share Allison's bed and her house, though nothing can be the same as it was. Allison's ex-husband, Vermont Public Radio president Will, now her good friend, and their daughter, Carly, cope well with the situation, but the close-knit community is less understanding. Questions of what constitutes community tolerance are explored here, but the novel's central focus is on the definition of sex and gender in the characters' personal lives. Allison, Dana, Carly and Will express their views in alternating first person chapters, and transcripts from a fictional NPR All Things Considered series on Dana and her operation provide additional narrative background. Gender is central to who we are, Bohjalian concludes, but not perhaps to who we love. Sex, on the other hand, expresses who we are. Bohjalian's sometimes simplistic characterizations diminish the emotional impact of the novel, and his abundant research on gender dysfunction often gives the book a curiously flat, documentary quality. Nevertheless, Bohjalian humanizes the transsexual community and explains the complexities of sex and gender in an accessible, evenhanded fashion, making a valuable contribution to a dialogue of social and political import. 50,000 first printing; NPR sponsorship; cross-promotion with Vintage publication of The Law of Similars; 15-city author tour. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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August 12, 2001
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Excerpt from Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian
I was eight when my parents separated, and nine when they actually divorced. That means that for a little more than a decade, I've watched my mom get ready for dates. Sometimes, until I started ninth grade, I'd even keep her company on Saturday afternoons, while she'd take these long, luxurious bubble baths. I'd put the lid down on the toilet and sit there, and we'd talk about school or boys or the guy she was dating.
I stopped joining her in the bathroom in ninth grade for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it had started to seem a little weird to me to be hanging out with her when I was fourteen and she was naked.
But she has always been pretty cool about bodies and sex, and for all I know, she wouldn't mind my joining her in the bathroom even now when I'm home from college. For better or worse--and usually for better--my mom has always been very comfortable with subjects that give most parents the shivers. A couple of days before my fifteenth birthday, she took me to the gynecologist to get me fitted for a diaphragm, and told me where in her bedroom she kept the spermicidally lubricated condoms. (Of course, I already knew: God, by then I even knew where she'd hidden a vibrator.)
I hadn't had sex yet, and my mom made it clear that she didn't want me to in the foreseeable future. But she had a pretty good memory of the hormonal chaos that hits a person in high school, and she wanted to do all that she could for my sake to ensure that she wouldn't become a grandmother any sooner than necessary.