What do you call a
woman who falls in love with another
woman? The current approach may be to
avoid labels altogether, but some obvious
answers spring to mind -- she's a lesbian, a
bisexual or just experimenting. In her deeply
odd new memoir, Kim Chernin offers another
explanation: She's a boy. Not a
whisker-growing kind of boy. She means,
instead, a woman who's undergone a kind of
metamorphosis, replacing feminine wiles with
It all happened -- as so many things did -- in
Berkeley in the '70s. Having just sent her
daughter off to college and noticing a deficit in
the marital bliss department, Chernin was
primed for change. It came when she met
Hadamar. Separated from her overbearing
European husband, Hadamar was sensitive,
elegant, reserved. The two began an intense
friendship that soon, for Chernin at least,
included sexual desire. So far, nothing
earth-shattering. What makes the story
different is the author's insistence on (and
dogged overworking of) the "boy" theme.
Chernin is best known for her books on
anorexia, and here again she ponders body
image when she describes how, during her
pursuit of Hadamar, she wore nothing but
tight pants and a thrift-store sailor's shirt: her
boy outfit, short hair and legs-apart stance
mirroring her interior gender-switch.
Being a boy, she says, allowed her to indulge
in a "playful, courtly air" that traditional
femininity denies. More importantly, it
brought her freedom to finally "care more for
my own desire than for any other obligations."
Chernin sketches some important ideas in this
slim book, especially when she delineates
womanly vs. boyish styles of love. But these
wispy hints of wisdom are drowned in
ponderous self-analysis and overshadowed by
Chernin's somewhat outdated sense of awe at
having fallen in love with another woman.
Finally, Chernin rests her case. "The boy,"
she says, "is a transitional figure. One who
acted before he thought" and "had certain
rights that came from being a boy," including
the -- tragically unexercised in this case --
"right to women." You got it: All that
psychodrama leads to zero sex. Which makes
goofing on Chernin's final pronouncement
irresistible: "What a rogue I had become, what
a ridiculous scoundrel of a hard boy. And how
I loved myself!" Well, honey, at least
someone did. -- Salon
"If a woman in her thirties turns into a boy, that may mean she's having trouble getting out of the place she's in. She requires the instinctive, wholly natural ruthlessness of a boy." Chernin (
In My Father's Garden) is gripped by this wild "transformation imperative" when she falls head over heels with "Hadamar," a beautiful, sophisticated German Jewish woman from a prominent Berkeley family. Restless in her second marriage to a sensitive doctor, and with her only daughter off at college, the dreamy, dependent Chernin submerges herself in an oral history project. While visiting Edith, a woman she has been interviewing about growing up in Europe, Chernin encounters Edith's niece, Hadamar, and senses almost immediately that she will have an intense relationship with this dazzling woman that will end painfully, yet will change her life. ("The ending of it seemed as clearly stated as its moody, contradictory beginning.... I felt that I had lost her even before I told her my name.") The pair begin an exquisitely delicate and indirect courtship that propels Chernin into an incredible shift of sexual orientation. As she grows more confident in her "boyhood," more independent and adventurous, Chernin leaves her husband. Finally, when her romance with Hadamar ends in an unexpected betrayal, she accepts the event as a rite of passage, a doorway to her life among women. Although action is minimal, Chernin's memoir is a sensitive rendering of states of love and states of being, rich with insight into the connection between identity and desire.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A book, slim as a 10-year-old's silhouette and foggy as an adolescent fantasy, about a retreat from femininity, an attempt by the author to transform herself into a boy.
Author Chernin (
Cecilia Bartoli: The Passion of Song, p. 109; In My Father's Garden, 1993; etc.) has explored desire, food, mom, dad, and psychoanalysis in a series of largely narcissistic hikes through the psyche. We are all self-obsessed, but some of us are more self-obsessed than others; Chernin rates a ten. Married and with a college-bound daughter from an earlier relationship as this book begins, Chernin was a typical Berkeley matron, "ample and proud of it," wearing "low-cut long dresses." Her transformation began at a typical Berkeley event, a demonstration against the death of a tree, when Chernin found herself wrapping her jacket protectively around the shoulders of a sobbing stranger. That woman was to come back into her life, but not until after a lengthy, convoluted, and unconsummated romance with a tall, elegant woman named Hadamar. For love of Hadamar (surely the name alone enchants), Chernin went from ample matron to slim-hipped, flat-chested youth, doffing her long dresses and donning a sailor shirt and jeans in an attempt to transform herself into what Hadamar wanted. Chernin becomes what she thinks boys areassertive, impetuous, adventurousbut she cannot in the end become the dominant male. She leaves Hadamar, to find fulfillment later with another woman.
Like Virginia Woolf in
Orlando, Chernin writes as if she were describing a long dream. But Woolf informs readers about the mysteries of gender; Chernin manages little more than a change of costume.