REVIEW: Transgression by Theo Fenraven
Dear Theo Fenraven,
I bought this book after it came highly recommended to me when I expressed a wish to read more diverse romance. I’m glad to have read it, even though parts of the story didn’t entirely work for me. Your writing style is very engaging and I found myself reading long after bedtime and hurrying to the finish because I wanted to know what happened. On that measure, the book was certainly a success.
Zachary Fox is an actor on the latest hit medical drama to come out of Hollywood. He’s just about to sign a contract for the second season which has been greenlit and his star is on the rise. He’s in a “relationship” with one of his (female) co-stars, Kris. It is sexual and friendly but it was mostly a business decision for them to start dating. Being seen together by the paparazzi is good for their careers. Zach is bisexual but not out. Kris knows about his attraction to men and is tolerant of him hooking up discreetly. The story begins when Zach and Kris travel to Sydney on holiday (that’s a really long way to go for a week, just sayin’) and Zach is looking forward to hooking up with hot Aussie dudes in a fairly anonymous environment. He’s not all that famous outside the US yet.
Zach is having trouble sleeping and is reluctant to take prescription medication because of the way it makes him feel the next day. His friend, Andy, offers to hook him up with a herbalist friend of his by the name of Sky Kelly.
Sky is a transgirl and a highly paid escort. She was kicked out of home at the age of 16 and survived on the streets for a while, hooking. She eventually worked her way up the ladder to a place where she now has only a few clients whom she trusts. She has been the victim of violence and all sorts of vilification. She is financially able to have fewer clients now which means less risk for her. She owns her house and has a budding herbalist business and does a bit of tarot card reading on the side. Her dream is to open a little shop where she can supply her natural remedies and quit hooking altogether. She sees a therapist regularly to deal with ongoing issues around her past and her gender identity but is doing much better with how she feels about herself and her life.
Sky is a beautiful woman. Her mother is of Asian heritage and from her, Sky inherited a slender build and a fine bone structure. There is use of the word “exotic” to describe her beauty by some characters. I’m not qualified to state whether this was done in a problematic way. There’s some interesting discussion in the book about “feminine” and “masculine” and it got me to thinking about the intersection of those terms and how they are commonly perceived in society and the idea that one can be entirely a woman and not be (perceived to be) terribly “feminine” or be entirely a man and not be (perceived to be) all that “masculine”. Again, I’m not really qualified to comment further but some of it made me a little uncomfortable. Sky wants to be a “girly girl”; she likes feminine clothes and doesn’t wear jeans or pants (not at least, for most of the book). It seemed to me like she felt she had to try harder somehow to be a woman, that wearing pants was too “mannish” and while I sympathised for her where she was, I also thought it was a bit sad – that these ideas of what makes a girl a girl and what makes a guy and guy are so stereotyped, and the way those stereotypes can be perpetuated even by those who are marginalised, while at the same time causing damage to those same marginalised people (as well as differently marginalised people).
Sky sees herself as female, she identifies as female and she lives as female. Yes, she has a penis and testicles, but she is nonetheless a girl. The way she was presented in the story and her own sense of identity was so strong that I couldn’t see her any other way.
When Zach meets her, he is instantly smitten. Nothing happens between them and he goes on his holiday to Sydney with Kris – time he spends hooking up with Aussie guys and fighting with Kris and they agree to split up in an amicable but public manner at a time some weeks into the future. Zach then visits his folks in New York and catches up with an old friend, Ricky. Ricky has recently split up with his wife and is out of work. It is clear Ricky has a secret of some sort. I won’t spoil it here. Frankly, I think I’d like for Ricky to have had his own book. I liked him well enough in this story but I wanted more of Zach and Sky – I became a little resentful of the page time I spent with Ricky. Also, I’d happily read a book where Ricky was the main character and his “secret” (she says mysteriously), deserves a whole book in itself.
When Zach gets back from New York (with Ricky in tow as his new personal assistant) he asks Sky out on a date. Sky accepts but has second thoughts after being assaulted by a drunken entitled arsewipe at a New Year’s party she attended with one of her clients. Said arsewipe wants to “see” and tries to force Sky into a room in order to rip her panties off – but not after going the grope first. Sky gets away but in the process she earns the enmity of a spoiled man-child with no impulse control, a lot of money and a powerful father. It was shocking to see the kind of treatment Sky is subjected to – and the text makes it clear Ethan (aka the arsewipe) is not the first. Honestly, people just suck sometimes.
When Zach and Sky go out to dinner, she tells him she is trans. Zach isn’t at all fazed, which bodes well for a potential relationship. She asks him to accompany her to a drop in centre for trans men and women and those who are questioning their gender, where she is due to volunteer at their monthly information afternoon. The media publish photos of Zach and Sky and the drop in centre and very soon, it is public knowledge that Zach is dating a trans hooker. The fact that Sky is an escort is crap icing on a shit sundae as far as the studio is concerned and Zach’s career becomes precarious.
The angst factor gets dialled up to 11 and in some respects, the book had a kind of id-reading feel to it. Ethan becomes more dangerous to them as things progress and there were moments I was almost holding my breath with dread at what might happen. This might not work for some people because the melodrama factor is relatively high. I didn’t mind it but I was aware of it.
I’m not queer and so I’m not at all an expert on bisexuality. The narrative seemed to bemoan bi-erasure and what is apparently (?) a common public perception that a bi man is code for “gay”. Zach is definitely attracted to men and women. I could accept that when he was with Kris he wanted to be with men as well, in part because I knew his heart was not genuinely engaged. I know bi guys who are happily monogamously partnered and I know other bisexual people who are in more open relationships. I figure there’s no reason a bisexual person could not be monogamous and happy with one person of any gender if that’s what they chose to do. That is, I don’t think “bisexual” necessarily means “cheating cheatypants”. At one point in the book, Zach feels Sky is perfect for him because she “embodies both genders”. I had a bit of trouble with that. I’ll say again, I’m in no way an expert, but that seemed to me to misstate bisexual attraction. I don’t think Zach won’t cheat on Sky with men because she has a penis and his desire for men is thus assuaged. I don’t think Zach won’t cheat on Sky with women because she has breasts and his desire for women is thus assuaged. At base, I don’t think Zach will cheat on Sky because he loves her and he chooses to be faithful to her. I can certainly see an argument that being bisexual could predispose Zach to being more accepting of Sky – in that, he is attracted to the penis as well, so her having one is not necessarily going to be a problem. But I don’t see Sky as both a man and a woman. I don’t think Zach saw her as anything other than a woman either actually, so I really don’t know what to do with this idea that she somehow embodies both* genders and therefore is a magical unicorn able to keep Zach satisfied. (*When I say both, I am being simplistic and mirroring the words in the book – I know gender is more properly considered a spectrum.)
At another point in the book, Zach refers to himself as “bi-gender” and that confused me as well. He has never wanted to be a woman, has never identified as female or wanted to. He doesn’t mind wearing women’s clothes or makeup occasionally – he thinks it’s a bit of a trip – but that’s not the same thing. At least, not as I understand matters.
The biggest problem with the book in terms of the story itself is that the romance between Zach and Sky is Hadron-Collider quick. They are in love after two dates. That was too quick for me. Especially considering the shitstorm that is created when the media get hold of the story. I would have liked Zach and Sky to have spent more time together before Zach had to decide whether to risk everything to keep dating her. After two dates? Well, it just didn’t seem like enough for me. Those who don’t mind instalove (I’m generally not a fan) might not be bothered by this. With the possible exception of Ethan’s weirdness, I could absolutely see the basic narrative playing out exactly as told on page. I think an up and coming actor coming out as bisexual would probably not be that big a deal these days – it might cost him a little work but it wouldn’t necessarily be career suicide. Similarly dating a trans woman might cause his career to take a detour and potentially it could take a nosedive. The thing I thought would be the least likely to be seen as acceptable by Joe & Josephine Public was Zach dating a prostitute. When you have all three together – well it seems a bit like the perfect storm in terms of his career.
Once the news is out, things are pretty dramatic. Trigger Warning: there is some shocking (non-sexual) violence which happens to another character in the story.
The ending was believable and happy and hopeful and I’d like to think that in time Zach would be judged for his acting ability alone rather than who his partner is and what equipment is or isn’t between their legs – I can do this in Romanceland at least.
I found this book hard to grade because I liked much of it even while other parts troubled me. The biggest issue was the instalove. I would have liked a few chapters in between date two and the media reveal for more getting to know you and falling in love – which, as it was, was a bit on the thin side. It’s a story with high stakes, high angst and high emotion which won’t appeal to everyone but which I found very entertaining and, quite moving at times. I knew my emotions were being manipulated but I was prepared to go with it. I had some concerns about some of the messages I perceived in the narrative and which appeared to go unchallenged – for instance, Zach thinks of men as “usually less devious than women” which is one of those stereotype things I disliked (and which I referred to earlier). In the end, I’d give this a qualified recommendation for those readers who don’t mind an angsty book, which I guess brings it in at about a B-.