Alex As Well by Alyssa BrugmanI’ve just finished reading Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 2015, originally published in Australia by Text Publishing Company) for a YA Writing Course I’m on at the moment, run by Keris Stainton. Alex As Well  is a novel about the difficulties faced by an intersex child, the immediate family and others who interact with child, family or both. For a book that is said to be the first to tackle this subject, there seems to be a lot of over-simplification and a perpetuation of stereotypes, both of which have raised a lot of questions.

Why does Alex have to be a beautiful girl in order to survive? How is going into modelling a solution to her problems when there is so much hardship in the modelling world? It seems an opt-out, an easy way of figuring out how Alex can survive on her own financially – what happens to people like Alex who are not considered ‘beautiful enough’ to go into modelling? How might they survive, or will they be stuck in the abusive/non-understanding relationships with no means of escape – and would this be more realistic to write about?

Why is there a gender split inside Alex’s head, and why is it the male side of her is always the one doing bad/naughty things? Again, this is a cop out – surely there is rarely such a split in personality, and rarely (if ever) would the male/female sides be so clear-cut. It’s rather offensive to suggest that because Alex wants to be a girl, the male side of her is always bad and the female side is the one that is good, compassionate and rational.

The portrayal of the parents is rather stereotyped and biased. They are shown to be bad parents throughout the book because they don’t understand and aren’t supportive of Alex. But this is another too clear-cut element of the book. Although on the rare occasion, the parents are shown to be trying to do something positive, mostly they are shown to be hapless fools who are more bothered about themselves than Alex, unable as they are to cope with having a child like Alex, one that cannot be easily defined as male or female. Except that when Alex does try to define her gender, they cannot cope with that either. The mother especially, is treated badly. Perhaps she is mentally unstable, but describing her as being mad is an insult to anyone who has suffered mental problems. Neither Alex, nor his parents, appear to have been offered any counselling to help them to cope/come to terms with/move forward together with their situation in order to make life the best it can be for all of them. Sadly, this might often be the case, but surely not always? How tragic, if that’s the case, and certainly a call for change.

The other thing is, would someone like Crockett really reach out and help someone in Alex’s situation – and why? Are Crockett’s motives to find some kind of redemption for not being there for his wife? Should young and vulnerable children/young adults be encouraged to accept help from strangers like Crockett, and is the mere fact that he is a solicitor used to prove that he is trustworthy?

There seem to be a lot of unresolved or unrealistic elements to Alex As Well and it’s interesting that a lot of criticism includes lack of research on the part of the author.

The other big problem I had was I found the novel difficult to place spatially. I couldn’t figure out where it was set. I deliberately decided not to do any research on the authors of any of the books on the course because I wanted to see how each author dealt with the setting of their novel. Relying on the diction, at first, I thought the story was set in the UK, until some phrases came up suddenly which made me think it might be set in the USA, and then some other phrases came up which made me question that too. It wasn’t until around page 157 that there was mention of the North Shore, which I looked up and discovered that was in Australia. After that, I did a bit of research on the author and discovered that she was Australian. The setting became apparent then, but this element of lack of place had a negative impact on reading the novel. Perhaps this is how Alex feels, but I didn’t sense that this was a deliberate act on the part of the novelist.

The subject area is an interesting one, and I hope more novels are published about it. Alex As Well raises a lot of questions, but should not be regarded as definitive on the experiences of interest children or their families. Click here if you’d like to read more comments and find more links about this book or this subject.