Another Title for the “Best of 2015”: A Novel About Intersexed Identity

Alex as Well, Alyssa Brugman, (Henry Holt & Co.), 224 pages, released January 20, 2015

I am going to step out on a limb and say that Alyssa Brugman’s Alex as Well is going to be on my “ten best of 2015” list. Yes, there’s an awful lot of 2015 left to go, but this book is a marvel: original, funny, infuriating, hopeful, intelligent.

Alex, the title character, was born intersexed and raised male, but she’s come to realize that she’s a she. That doesn’t mean the male Alex she’s lived as has disappeared—just that the female Alex feels more truthful.

The book opens five days after Alex has decided to stop taking her medication. She’s hanging out at a mall, the Clinique-counter girl asks Alex if she wants a makeover, and Alex tells us “I hesitate, because five days ago I would have thrust my hands in my pockets and scooted out of there. Instead, I steal across the floor and into the seat she has spun around for me.”

Soon after, Alex looks into a mirror; she sees both of her selves and they see her: “He [the male Alex] looks at me and sees a hot chick—a smooth Clinique girl. I [the female Alex] look at him and see a chimpanzee tugging on his little noodle.” Her two selves know each other well.

Most of the book is narrated by Alex, but interspersed with Alex’s chapters are her mother’s posts on a chat forum for mothers. She is not at all happy to find herself with a daughter and makes this clear to Alex, as well as to her chat forum-mates. Alex describes her mother in mid-rant: “My mother is screeching. Her face is all purple, her eyes are bulging, and there is a vein in her forehead, like the one Julia Roberts gets, but it doesn’t make my mother vulnerable and endearing, no, she looks like she’s having a forehead hernia.”

That description gives you a sense of the sort of person Alex is: exceptionally perceptive, exceptionally smart, and with a fatalistic sense of humor that helps see her through the hard times—of which there are plenty.

I don’t want to say much about the plot because this is one of those cases where the reader wants to travel along with the narrator, encountering challenges and successes at the same time she does. Suffice it to say, things are not perfect, but Alex’s sense that she’s finally following the path that’s right for her gives her the strength to keep going.

If you know anyone in the fourteen-to-twenty (give or take) age range who’s frustrated by the limitations of traditional gender roles, this book would make the perfect gift. You don’t have to be intersexed to appreciate Alex; you just need to know that the world is a whole lot more complicated than our cultural dichotomies would have us believe. And regardless of your own age range, check this book out. Really, it’s one of 2015’s best.