Trigger Warning: Very strong and difficult content, non-consensual decisions about the bodies of others. A more detailed trigger warning is included at the end of this review, in order to avoid story spoilers if you decide to read this novel.
If you wish to avoid the details of sexual assault while reading the book, skip Max’s first section.
My use of male pronouns in this review is due to Tarttelin’s portrayal of Max as a male-identifying person. For the sake of this review, I felt that he/him/his were the proper pronouns to use.
This review includes spoilers involving the perspectives of various characters in the novel.
Golden Boy is a heart-wrenching story about an intersex teen named Max, and the aftereffects of his rape. The main issue explored by the author in Max’s story is the secrecy and misconceptions surrounding sex and gender. At it’s core, this is a coming of age story with a conversation on social expectations. Along with characters’ problematic views comes the question their lives revolve around: what will people think?
An English novelist trained in acting, Abigail Tarttelin writes with natural ability. The character development is expertly established such that the reader becomes fully invested in Max, wanting to see the novel through to the end. This is the gift of a skilled author. The book is beautifully written in the simple style of many young adult novels, making it an easy read. However, the content is harrowing, making the reading psychologically challenging.
Each section of the book is divided according to character. The story continually shifts perspectives, allowing a thorough view of the complexities of the situation. The reader sees how Max’s character evolves through both his eyes and those of the people around him. The readers also get to know the personalities of the other characters, and how they affect the story.
Adding to the events of the book are the class, political, and familial elements of Max’s life. Max is the golden boy: blonde, smart, good-looking, sweet-natured, athletic, and popular. His parents live in the spotlight of their highly successful legal careers, which have a strong influence on Max’s feelings about himself, as well as his actions later on. His attacker is a childhood friend; a friendship at times forced by the close relationship between their mothers.
At the time of the story, Max’s mother Karen is leading a charmed, privileged life. She has a close relationship with Max, and played a large part in raising her children as her husband Steve worked longer hours. This is quickly shown to be problematic in that Max began to take on his mother’s view of his body as mysterious and distasteful, a mistake best kept quiet. She worries about Steve’s political involvement in the town, as it draws them further into the spotlight that could shine on things she believes are best left in the dark.
I think much of Karen’s view of intersexuality comes from her interactions with Max’s specialists. The specialists are the worst kind of doctors, the kind that treat Max as a specimen, ignoring his personhood, his feelings and curiosity about his own body. They talked almost exclusively to Max’s parents, particularly to Karen (Steve didn’t like them). In doing this, they gave her all the control.
When the family is at a doctor’s appointment, Karen demands that Max “stop talking” to the doctor, as if what he has to say about himself is of no consequence. They led her to believe Max was different in a bad way; Max, like many children, picked up on Karen’s attitude. He sees intersexuality as a terrible secret that will force him into loneliness in his adult life. Knowledge is a power Max was never given, leading to the confusion he deals with throughout the story and the events that unfold after the rape.
As for Max’s father, he is partly to blame as well. While he is far more open-minded about Max’s intersexuality, and better able to cope than Karen, he is guilty in that he did not speak up. Karen bullied him into keeping quiet when he should have said something. He also spends far more time working than Karen, especially when he decides to delve into politics. This leaves Karen to rule the household, to make decisions concerning Max. If Steve had stood up for Max, the story would have taken a different route; rather than focusing on society’s opinions, Steve wants his children to make their own decisions.
Adding pressure to an already strenuous situation is Daniel, Max’s younger brother. Daniel’s chapters are characterized by run-on sentences about his love for his brother, video games, and his frustrations concerning parental attention. 9 years old and an aspiring robotics engineer, Daniel is a smart, temperamental little brother who, in spite of a close relationship with Max, often feels ignored or cast aside due to Max’s golden boy status. Daniel experiences problems in school, and relies on Max to help him, adding to Max’s already overflowing emotional plate.
Sylvie is Max’s love interest in the novel. An anxious loner who spends her days writing poetry, Sylvie likes hanging out in the local graveyard. Doing so helps her prove to herself that she has courage, that she has nothing to be afraid of. She helps Max by being there for him and helping him to feel loved and accepted throughout the novel.
The local doctor, Archie, is the character that reminds me the most of myself. When Max asks questions she doesn’t know the answer to, she does her best to find out; she recognizes the limits of her knowledge, and wants to learn more so she can do better. She states, “The trick is to treat the sick like you treat the well. More than anything, they need to feel normal” (pg. 45). She sees sex as a normal part of adolescence, and believes Max deserves answers to his questions about his body.
Archie and Max initially have trouble communicating. This is largely caused by a lack of education on both their parts. Max is ashamed of what happened, doesn’t understand his body well, and doesn’t understand sex well, so has trouble communicating necessary information to his doctor. Medical education hardly covers sex and gender issues, and this gap in medical education makes it difficult for Archie to understand what she needs to know in order to help Max. These are gaps that must be addressed and fixed by society in order to create a healthier human population.
The end of the book is everything one could hope for. The book itself is a heartbreaker; Tarttelin gives her audience the ending that so many similar stories cannot have. I am happy with this; we all need some positivity in our lives. Tarttelin gives readers the kind of ending that gives one hope for a better day.
Trigger Warning (this includes major plot spoilers!):
rape, abortion, self-shaming, nonconsensual decisions about the bodies of others, attempted suicide.
Golden Boy can be purchased online or from your local bookstore. This review was based on my interpretations of this literature. Curious about what else I’m reading? Check out my Goodreads profile and my bookshelf.