Chris Bohjalian”s “Trans-Sister Radio” is best described as a breath of fresh air. It is not predictable or boring, nor is it a mystery or suspense novel. It does not bring on tears, yet it is packed with all kinds of emotions. It is about ordinary people, but it is in no way ordinary. If this book by the author of Oprah Book Club fave “Midwives” is any indication of where contemporary novels are heading, get ready for smart, witty and beautifully written literature.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Vintage Books

The story begins in a small town in Vermont where Carly Banks lives with her hip, liberal, divorced mother Allison. When Allison meets Professor Dana Stevens through a film class she is taking, the crush seems pretty normal: Dana finds everything about Allison”s easygoing ways appealing and thinks she”s quite attractive. Allison thinks Dana”s looks, from his gentle hands to his silky blonde hair, are irresistible. They begin to date, and instantly both are smitten. Yet something makes this love story much more complex: Dana is convinced that he is a woman trapped in a man”s body, and is preparing for a sex change operation.

Before automatically assuming “Trans-Sister Radio” is the book version of a freak show, give the first few chapters a chance. Although this novel is a story about a man who is transsexual yet in love with a woman, which practically defines “truly outrageous,” this story is, ironically, the exact opposite. This is highlighted in the chapters where Dana Stevens talks about his need to be a woman. It might not seem possible to sympathize with a transsexual if you are not a transsexual yourself, but Dana Stevens” story makes sympathy an obvious reaction. From his childhood dreams of going to bed and waking up a woman, to him crying at the thought of not being able to give birth, his stories are heart-wrenching.

An interesting yet somewhat unrealistic part of the story comes about when Allison decides to stick by Dana through his sex change. They have been dating for a short period of time when Dana breaks the news that he will soon be a she, and Allison is truly blue. The couple still has sex the same way as they did before Dana broke the news, and although Allison tries to convince Dana to change his mind, her pleas do not seem too passionate. The biggest problem she seems to have is the fact that Dana did not tell her about himself right away, but this hurt and anger passes fairly briefly.

The author tries to prepare the reader for Allison”s reaction by showing how “cool” and “young” she is, throwing in certain things about her: For example, Allison took Carly to the gynecologist to get her fitted for a diaphragm before her 15th birthday. This sort of information does not do justice to the fact that Allison is a heterosexual woman about to be in a lesbian relationship with a woman whom she first loved as a man. However, after getting past this part of the story, the rest is very rational.

One of the best parts of this book is that with each chapter, the viewpoint changes. Carly begins the first chapter, speaking in the first person, Dana takes the second, and so on. The order in which each chapter is written is not chronological, which might at first seem confusing, but within the context of the story the narrative flows very well. Between each chapter there are excerpts from a National Public Radio broadcast that tells the story the way the characters would like the world to view it. These broadcasts might seem random at first glance, but make perfect sense after discovering Allison used to work for NPR, her ex-husband Will still works there and Carly is an intern for NPR the reason why the story is being told in the first place.

The ending of this book is such a surprise, yet it makes so much sense that it works. That is the way this whole book is just when you think that the situations could not possibly work, it does, and leaves you feeling all warm (and girly) inside.

Join author Chris Bohjalian tonight at Shaman Drum as he reads excerpts from “Trans-Sister Radio” at 8 p.m., followed by a signing.

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