A debut literary novel addresses issues of identity, family, and personal history.
Returning to her alma mater as a professor is a mixed bag for Nickie Farrell. Windfield College is a liberal enclave in a conservative section of northern Virginia and holds warm memories for her. But as a transgender woman, she must grapple with the fact that she presented herself as male when she attended the college. Her history becomes a more pressing issue when Cinda Vanderhart, an overzealous student reporter, violates her privacy. Nickie grants her an interview and Cinda reveals that the professor is trans in the school paper. At the same time, Collie Skinner, a waiter in town, struggles with his grief over his mother’s serious illness and her recent revelation—that his biological father was a Windfield student who seemed to disappear shortly after their affair. Matters only escalate from there, as violent bigots follow and menace Nickie; Collie and his co-worker and confidante Robin Thompson start digging into his past; Cinda investigates the abnormal heterochromatic eyes Nickie and Collie share; and they all become embroiled in a deadly threat to the entire campus and all it represents. The prose in Woulff’s novel is solid, but its true strength is in giving multiple perspectives their own unique voices. Nickie communicates her uncertainty, anxiety, and pride as she deals with her trajectory and shifting relationships. Early on, she’s optimistic about teaching at Windfield (“Maybe she had finally discovered her niche, her purpose in life. After everything she’d been through, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be at peace with herself and the world?”). Collie’s story has a resonance through his sense of loss and the difficulties of self-knowledge without fully understanding his roots. And Cinda too has sympathetic turns, even as her thread demonstrates how a passion for truth can be harmful and how attitudes within LGBT communities can threaten trans people. That said, the book contains much more than a character study, and readers who enjoy a good thrill should be happy to be along for the ride, even as the more emotional segments tug at the heartstrings. Ultimately, this novel is a deft and nuanced study in contradictions, clashes, and mismatches, and a stirring reminder that so often that’s exactly what life is.
A rich web of complex questions, rendered beautifully in this tale of a transgender professor.