Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman
Release Date: January 20th 2015
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company (BYR)
Alex is ready for things to change, in a big way. Everyone seems to think she's a boy, but for Alex the whole boy/girl thing isn't as simple as either/or, and when she decides girl is closer to the truth, no one knows how to react, least of all her parents.
Undeterred, Alex begins to create a new identity for herself: ditching one school, enrolling in another, and throwing out most of her clothes. But the other Alex-the boy Alex-has a lot to say about that. Heartbreaking and droll in equal measures, Alex As Well is a brilliantly told story of exploring gender and sexuality, navigating friendships, and finding a place to belong.
The description of this book is a bit misleading. At first glance, I thought this book dealt with a transgender character, but the truth is that Alex is intersex. She was born with ambiguous gentialia (small penis, no scrotum, & ovaries), but has been raised as a boy by her parents. Now that Alex is 14 years old, she realizes that she is a girl, not a boy. The book has a great premise and could have been phenomenal, but instead ended up being so problematic that I would be hard pressed to recommend it to anyone.
My biggest issue with this book is Alex’s parents, especially her mother, Heather. They take her declaration that she is a girl horribly; they call her a weirdo and pervert and act as if she is ruining their lives. Both of them act as if this is a surprising revelation and not something that could have happened all along. They chose to raise her as a boy with the help of testosterone medication. Heather herself even mentions that she had to keep logs and watch Alex to make sure they made the right decision. Everything points to them knowing this could happen, but by the way they act you’d never know it. Had Alex been transgendered and not intersex, their actions would have worked, but as written it didn’t make sense. (Note: please know that while it would have worked if Alex was transgendered, their responses/actions would have still been horrible!) Not to say that parents don’t act this way, it just felt odd how blindsided they were when it seemed most of Alex’s early life was about documenting their decision.
While Alex’s dad does seem to come around, Heather just won’t accept the change. I have never wanted to punch a character as much as I did Heather; via her forum/blog posts it becomes clear how horrible she really is. Not only does she refuse to call Alex her, but she forces medication on her by sticking it in her food. She claims that Alex has always been a selfish, difficult child, even at the age of 3. She wallows in self-pity, but never once stops to look at things through Alex’s eyes. She tries to play herself off as loving, but that women is nothing but hate. Worse that that, I can’t stand how her actions were tied to a “mental breakdown”. By the end of the book, she’s been admitted, and it’s almost as if that explains why she can’t be loving and supportive of Alex. Of course, it could also be implied that Alex’s decision drove her to that point, which is equally as disturbing.
Alex, herself, is problematic as well. She splits herself into boy-Alex and girl-Alex and there is a lot of self-loathing at times. At one point, she even calls herself a transgendered freak. This is where I wish I knew so much more about the intersex community. Both the splitting of the personality and calling herself transgendered feels off, but I’m not sure if I’m correct or not in my thinking.Of course, even if the personality separation is a normal occurrence among people, I hate how many gender stereotypes were used. Boy-Alex disrupts the class and makes lewd comments and gestures to other girls. On the other hand, Girl-Alex loves all things sparkly and can admit to be inept at using tools. It felt as if she was doing nothing more than putting all her traits into little boxes, much as her mother had been doing for years. I’m not even going to touch the dressing room scene at the start of the book, which really disturbed and creeped me out.
The last thing that really bothered me were all these little plot devices that made things too easy. Switching schools without parental consent? No problem! Join the school fashion show and become a sought after model making mad bank? Piece of cake! Find a lawyer who will act as a father figure and make things happen with a snap of the fingers? Done! I mean, I’m glad that Alex got out of her situation, but it all felt a little too easy. And what 14 year old is really ready to move out on their own? I suppose there may be a rare case out there, but Alex was not one of them. It just seemed so unrealistic. If Brugman was going for a fairy tale ending, I would have rather seen Alex end up in a supporting foster home rather than going at it all alone.
Final Verdict: A book I wanted to fall in love with, but couldn’t. While the topic held such promise, it ended up being highly flawed and problematic.