As it was in Jeffrey Eugenides’ brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex, the literary roots of Golden Boy can be traced to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book IV—the myth of the beautiful son of Hermes and Aphrodite. The “golden boy” of Tarttelin’s tale is Max, who is fifteen, the same age as the mythical boy in Ovid. They both venture out into their worlds at that impressionable and tender age and it is where they discover the beauty, the difficulties—and the dangers—that lurk there. Keeping in mind all three tales, Cal, the character whose story unfolds in Middlesex, and Max, our golden boy, are thematically connected to the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, whose name is an amalgam of both gods: Hermaphroditus. The term “hermaphrodite” has fallen out of favor today, however, supplanted with “intersex,” being a person carrying in varying degrees the genetic and physical characteristics of both the male and the female. And all three have this unusual biology at the revelatory heart of their chronicles.
Middlesex (2002) is an epic novel covering three generations of an (appropriately) Greek-American immigrant family, with Cal the intersex protagonist as its narrative voice. This is Cal, who begins his account as the “female” Calliope. Golden Boy is not as ambitious in scope as Middlesex nor as convoluted, but is in its way as touching and human as only a smaller tale can sometimes be. Max is given his voice, his inner and outer narratives—but so, too, are his family members, and the others who touch his life. Instead of chapters, the reader is gifted with the alternating voices of his younger brother, Daniel; his mother, Karen; his father, Steve; and the voices of Archie, his doctor; and his girlfriend, Sylvie. Instead of sprawling across generations and continents as befits the far-ranging Middlesex, almost all the action in Golden Boy takes place in Hemingway, a quiet, British upper middle-class suburb of Oxford.
Max is the proverbial golden boy—in addition to having remarkably beautiful blond hair, he’s good-looking, well-behaved, polite, well-liked, athletic, a good student—in short, he’s a brother, a son, a student, a friend, a boyfriend who anyone would be proud of, but who happens to have a chromosomal secret: a karyotype of 46,XX/46,XY. This secret hasn’t been handled very well by almost everyone who knows of it, including Max himself. But this secret, while pivotal to the crisis that drives this book, is not the tragic core to the story, instead it’s the human mistakes that give truth to another proverb, that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. What happens to Max should never happen under any circumstances anywhere—to anyone, male or female or otherwise. The characters are real, the voices are distinct, the crisis is horribly mishandled and misunderstood.
Fifteen going on sixteen is a wretched time for almost all adolescents, as the gods and goddesses (and the rest of us) know—even, it seems, when one is a golden child. Not to mention how much more difficult life can become when one’s father decides he’s going to stand for election in Parliament, with all the disruptions and entanglements such a campaign can cause. In the course of these events, among the other more mundane matters of living an everyday life, we see Max negotiating his place in his family, among his peers and schoolmates, and even more so with his troubled childhood chum, Hunter. Max takes his place on the sport field; he deals as best he can with the questions and problems of his younger brother, he does his best to try to relate to his loving but sometimes brittle mother who has made sacrifices for him and his family in spite of being a successful barrister.
Adolescence is also bothered of course with negotiating the brambles of burgeoning romances and we see Max picking his way through those sharp and prickly thorns. Those relationships might be the standard stuff of any coming-of-age Young Adult novel were it not for the special circumstances that make Max who he is, and if it were not for the skillful handling of the story told from the markedly differing viewpoints of all the characters with their individual perspectives spoken clearly in distinguishing voices.
Along the way the reader will learn much about the problems and variety of intersex people, not in a pedantic, didactic way thankfully, but as a device that moves the novel along and which clarify Max’s place in its rainbow definition of diversity, and which further serve to reveal what makes Max special—and what makes Max vulnerable. Decisions are made by Max, and unfortunately all too often for Max—decisions which are often made through ignorance, silence, hope, desire, and which are decided in ways which are understandable and human, if regrettably clumsy and painfully wrong-headed in too many circumstances.
The delight of this novel is the fullness of each drawn character—what makes this novel fascinating is its relatable authenticity. Every note from each character is genuine; the language is clear and simple, often rising to the poetic,
Today, there’s a breeze that spikes your skin with cold. The leaves are turning beautiful colors and the first have already fallen. I prefer summer to the other seasons, for the heat. You can be out all day playing football and not even have to worry about bringing a T-shirt. But autumn is loveable. It’s summer’s dying cousin. It’s somehow vulnerable, for the world to die so publicly. You feel tender about autumn.
Over the past few decades, the western world has learned a lot about sexual minorities and gender identity. One of the driving forces behind this enlightenment is the willingness of LGBTI people to come out and tell their stories, and perhaps even more the willingness of others to get to know them as people, as fellow human beings worthy of equality and dignity and respect and love. Golden Boy is gripping and intelligent, a beacon illuminating the truth that in spite of all the perceived dissimilarities that cause people to divvy humans into “differences” and then slot those differences into labeled boxes, in spite of the tendency to dismiss groups of people as “other” or somehow “less than,” we are, indeed and finally, all in this together.
Max comes alive in this book, one comes to know Max, respect Max, cheer with Max and despair with Max, and to recognize our shared humanity in Max. The reader comes to love Max as a person worthy of our empathy and compassion, though he may be flawed (but who among us isn’t in our own ways?). The author has the talent to make us love him exactly as he is—which is how it should be—and we should be grateful to Abigail Tarttelin for doing that to Max, and for doing that for us.