The Barnes & Noble Review
It may be voyeuristic curiosity that first prompts you to crack the binding of Jennifer Finney Boylan's first-person story of gender switching. But as you tuck into this amazing memoir, you'll find yourself transfixed less by the before-and-after photos than by an affecting, impossible-to-put-down narrative.
Jennifer spent the first 43 years of her life as James, the noted author of novels The Planets and Getting In, co-chair of the English Department at Maine's Colby College, and best friend of Pulitzer Prizewinning scribe Richard Russo (Empire Falls, Nobody's Fool), who contributes a touching afterword. Boylan begins her frequently self-deprecating and humorous tale with James's Philadelphia Main Line boyhood, then moves on to girlfriends and college; blissful first years of marriage to his wife, Grace; and the birth of his two sons.
It's against the backdrop of this achingly "normal" life that James comes to terms with the realization that he was born transgendered. "It has nothing to do with a desire to be feminine," Boylan writes, "but it had everything to do with being female." With hormones and surgery, James becomes Jenny, now a female faculty member of Colby College, a "sister" to his wife, and "Maddy" (that's Mommy+Daddy) to his children.
"The problem, as this memoir illustrates, is that the transgendered person's experience is not really 'like' anything," writes Russo -- which explains why this story is so startling. While Boylan's charm and wit endear him to the reader, we can't help but wonder about the untold memoirs in his story: the wife who lost a husband, a mother who lost a son, and two children who lost a father. Sallie Brady
The New Yorker
James Boylan grew up feeling that he was a woman trapped inside a man’s body; in his early forties, he chose to risk everything, including his marriage, to pursue another identity. This journey is the subject of Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders. How could James—who renamed himself Jennifer—explain to his wife, Grace, and his best friend, the novelist Richard Russo, that he hadn’t felt at home in his own skin? The most moving parts of the book are the e-mail exchanges with Russo that Boylan reproduces verbatim. As much as Russo wants to believe his friend’s account of himself, he doesn’t find the character of Jenny credible: “Here, you insist, is THE REAL ME, the me I’ve kept a secret all these years. And yet [it] seems mannered, studied, implausible,” Russo writes. Russo misses the old familiarity: now, he explains in the afterword, he guards against small slips (“he” for “she”) that reveal how much he wants James back.
Noelle Howey remembers her father, Dick, as a distant presence in her childhood; he would come home, fix a drink, and retreat to his corner of the living room. So Howey feels that she gained rather than lost a parent when Dick divorced her mother and became Christine. As Christine, she was “kinder, nicer, tidier, better with children, interested in flowers and birds and chick flicks,” Howey writes in Dress Codes: Of Three Girlhoods - My Mother's, My Father's and Mine. It was “like the transformation of Mr. Hyde into Miss Jekyll.” Yet she wonders, “If all these wonderful traits were inside my father all along, why was gender the only means to let them out? Why wasn’t loving me—or my mother—enough?”(Kate Taylor)
The Washington Post
Boylan's depiction of femininity, as James becomes Jenny, is fascinating and often hilarious.Judith Warner
The New York Times
Although this story is by no means pain-free (one friend commits suicide), Ms. Boylan places her emphasis elsewhere. What she accomplishes, most entertainingly, is to draw the reader into extremely strange circumstances as if they were utterly normal. It's easy to feel, as Mr. Russo apparently did, when being told by his friend's doctor that sexual reassignment surgery and novel writing require similar precision. Janet Maslin
Boylan is 45 years old, but for more than 40 of those years she was James Finney Boylan. A Colby College professor and author of four books of fiction, Boylan has a good comic ear, and that humor keeps the book, which tells the story of Boylan's passage from male to female, on track if somewhat trivialized: most scenes are breezy and played for laughs. When Jenny is attacked by a drunk outside a bar, it goes largely unremarked upon; how does the man who always wanted to be a woman feel when suddenly assaulted for being just that? And when the reader is given an insight into Boylan's feelings, the news is often delivered secondhand: during a conversation with a therapist, in a letter sent to colleagues or during frequent visits with her best friend, novelist Richard Russo (who also provides a touching but similarly lightweight, afterword). Boylan's friends and colleagues pat her on the back for her courage, and yet we get hints this is only half the story: Boylan's adoring mother is mentioned often, while a disgusted sister warrants only a short mention within a brief paragraph. Boylan may be choosing to accentuate the positive, but this leaves the story feeling incomplete, which is odd given the book's striving to feel whole. The book is frequently poignant ("As it turns out, we're all still learning to be men, or women, all still learning to be ourselves"), yet those moments don't cut to the quick of the story it has to tell. (On sale Aug. 26) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Can someone who is not transsexual understand the thoughts and emotions of a person who is? In this revealing autobiography, Boylan (English, Colby Coll.), an acclaimed writer of such novels as The Constellations and The Planets, hopes to convey these complex feelings to the public. With bluntness and sincerity, Boylan opens up about the 40 years she spent living as a man, about being trapped in the wrong body, the awkwardness of never feeling appropriately dressed, the desire to live outwardly as the opposite gender, and the overwhelming longing to fit in with the mainstream. This, as she points out, is especially true when the majority of the public's knowledge of transsexuals comes from "the small fringe of the community that feels driven to behave badly on The Jerry Springer Show." Boylan names each chapter after a significant moment in her life, highlighting momentous occasions or episodes of self-discovery. Often humorous and illustrative and always enjoyable and enriching without being preachy, Boylan selflessly offers the reader all the painful details of her life as sacrifice for a better appreciation of what it means to be transsexual in today's world. Her book will do more for raising awareness of the transsexual experience than Jan Morris's Conundrum. Recommended for all libraries and special collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/03.]-Mark Alan Williams, Library of Congress Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The limpid, soul-rich story of novelist James Boylan (Getting In, 1998, etc.) becoming Jennifer Boylan. From early on, Boylan says, the idea "that I was in the wrong body, living the wrong life, was never out of my conscious mind-never." In the beautifully guileless way he has of describing his feelings, he recounts wearing women's clothes-"I'd stand around thinking, this is stupid, why am I doing this, and then I'd think, because I can't not." Because he has mercifully inherited the buoyant optimism of his mother, an optimism that will serve him well over the years to come, he is able to recount, with comic aplomb, such tidbits as, "Earlier in the evening I'd sat on a chair in that room wearing a bra and reading Lord of the Rings." He was 16. He figured if he had sex, then his sense of himself might change, or if he fell in love, maybe then. Well, he does fall in love, with the remarkable Grace, and they have children, and he gets tenure and high marks from his students at Colby, and develops a close friendship with novelist Richard Russo, also teaching at Colby. And he still wants to be a woman. In writing as sheer as stockings, artful without artifice, he explains the process of becoming Jennifer: both the physiological, which has a comfortable tactility, and the emotional repercussions among his nearest and dearest. These aren't so easy-his wife's saying, "I want what I had"; his children thinking of him, in the midst of hormonal makeover, as "boygirl"; Russo telling him that Jennifer "seems mannered, studied, implausible." Yet they all manage the sticky web of circumstance-this mysterious condition-in their own fashion, and that makes them lovable. There's a particularly poignantmoment, when they're attending a wedding and Grace turns to Jennifer, asking if she wants to dance. Serious, real, funny. Told so disarmingly that it's strong enough to defang a taboo. (Photographs)
From the Publisher
“She’s Not There, the Running with Scissors of sex-change stories, brings irreverence and a merrily outrageous sense of humor to this potentially serious business.”
—Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Beautifully crafted, fearless, painfully honest, inspiring, and extremely witty. Jennifer Finney Boylan is an exquisite writer with a fascinating story, and this combination has resulted in one of the most remarkable, moving, and unforgettable memoirs in recent history.”
—Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors and Dry
Read an Excerpt
The exuberant memoir of a man named James who became a woman named Jenny.
She’s Not There is the story of a person changing genders, the story of a person bearing and finally revealing a complex secret; above all, it is a love story.
By turns funny and deeply moving, Jennifer Finney Boylan explores the remarkable territory that lies between men and women, examines changing friendships, and rejoices in the redeeming power of family. She’s Not There is a portrait of a loving marriage—the love of James for his wife, Grace, and, against all odds, the enduring love of Grace for the woman who becomes her “sister,” Jenny.
To this extraordinary true story, Boylan brings the humorous, fresh voice that won her accolades as one of the best comic novelists of her generation. With her distinctive and winning perspective, She’s Not There explores the dramatic outward changes and unexpected results of life as a woman: Jenny fights the urge to eat salad, while James consumed plates of ribs; gone is the stability of “one damn mood, all the damn time.”
While Boylan’s own secret was unusual, to say the least, she captures the universal sense of feeling uncomfortable, out of sorts with the world, and misunderstood by her peers. Jenny is supported on her journey by her best friend, novelist Richard Russo, who goes from begging his friend to “Be a man” (in every sense of the word) to accepting her as an attractive, buoyant woman. “The most unexpected thing,” Russo writes in his Afterword to the book, “is in how Jenny’s story we recognize our shared humanity.”
As James evolvesinto Jennifer in scenes that are by turns tender, startling, and witty, a marvelously human perspective emerges on issues of love, sex, and the fascinating relationship between our physical and our intuitive selves. Through the clear eyes of a truly remarkable woman, She’s Not There provides a new window on the often confounding process of accepting ourselves.
JENNIFER FINNEY BOYLAN is cochair of the English department at Colby College, where she was voted Professor of the Year in 2000. As James Finney Boylan, she wrote the critically praised novels The Constellations, The Planets, and Getting In, as well as a collection of short stories. She lives in Maine with her family.
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
“She’s Not There, the Running with Scissors of sex-change stories, brings irreverence and a merrily outrageous sense of humor to this potentially serious business.” —Janet Maslin, New York Times
“Beautifully crafted, fearless, painfully honest, inspiring, and extremely witty. Jennifer Finney Boylan is an exquisite writer with a fascinating story, and this combination has resulted in one of the most remarkable, moving, and unforgettable memoirs in recent history.” —Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors and Dry