A middle-aged man falls in love with a young transgender woman in this experimental debut novel that seems more concerned with anatomy than humanity.
Diego is a 38-year-old husband and father living in Pennsylvania who’s restlessly self-obsessed and full of anger and disappointment. He’s a confessed homophobe who one day enters a “chat room for gays,” planning to spend time spying on whom he considers “Godless mistakes.” He’s welcomed into the chat room by “Lydia 19,” who reveals herself to be a charming transgender woman living in Las Vegas. She’s openhearted and talkative, educating Diego about real-life figures, such as Angie Zapata, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2008, and Tyler Clementi, a gay college student who committed suicide in 2010. Diego is moved, despite himself, but tries to dismiss his emotions. Lydia shares that she’s “a woman trapped in a man’s body,” which piques Diego’s curiosity. Soon they graduate from chat rooms to phone calls and text messages, and Lydia tells him her life story, which includes a father who abandoned her, a mother who became a “voluptuous alcoholic,” and a cousin who raped her. Diego’s sympathy for Lydia grows into an obsession, and when he gets an opportunity to attend a conference in Vegas, he takes it. He wrestles with his guilt in poetic terms (“the guilt that sprouts inside of me and melts the world I thought I understood”) that feature a recurring cicada motif. It’s only by meeting in person that Diego and Lydia find the true depth of their relationship. The novel’s title refers to the name of Diego’s dreamlike inner world, a heady description of which opens (and clouds) the beginning of the novel. The book’s depiction of Diego and Lydia’s friendship is compelling. However, it often feels contrived, and Diego’s language is frequently belittling, putting “her” in quotation marks when referring to Lydia and wondering about her “phallus.” It’s also startling to read a narrative in which a trans woman has such little agency. The novel’s final chapters aim for redemption, alternating between Lydia and Diego and allowing Lydia’s perspective to finally enter the story. Ultimately, though, not even the ending can bring nuance to such a dense tale.
Although this story has its heart in the right place, readers may want to seek out other fiction that shows greater respect for transgender people.