Have you ever purchased a book because of the descriptive blurb on the back cover or inside flap only to find that the blurb was written by someone who apparently never even read the book? That’s how I felt about I’m Looking Through You. I bought this book because it was touted as a memoir written by someone who grew up in a haunted house. It ended up being about that, but also about a person “haunted” by feeling trapped in the wrong gender.
Jennifer Finney Boylan was born James Finney Boylan in a wealthy, well-to-do Philadelphia family. To put the family in perspective, his father oversaw the merger that resulted in PNC Bank. His family is lovingly portrayed as eccentric, kind, and talented, and I enjoyed Boylan’s writing style very much. I could really “see” her parents and sister, Lydia, as well as eccentric extended family members such as Gammie (grandmother) and various aunts, uncles, cousins and pets.
Jim, the author, moves into the Coffin House (named after a previous owner – but what a name!) when he’s an adolescent, and begins seeing apparitions in the decrepit old Victorian mansion. Apparitions of a woman in a night dress, a child, and a formless, frightening blob or mist appear and strange happenings, such as his chair moving by itself, are commonplace. Although frightened, Jim accepts the paranormal with aplomb. I liked that about him. It emphasized his quirkiness, which could have come off as annoying in the book, but instead made him endearing.
The first third of the book is rather slow, although interesting and entertaining. We learn more about Jim’s family and his struggles with his gender. Although born male, Jim yearns to be female. He wears women’s clothing in secret, and his androgynous appearance and feminine tastes make him the target of cruel teenage bullies who called him derogatory names. As Jim grows up in a haunted house, he also grows up feeling haunted by his own hidden life. He fails to have an intimate relationship, for example, with two different girls he’s interested in because he feels like a phony around them; how can you love someone, the author wonders, if you cannot reveal your true self to them?
Later on, the book moves more rapidly, first through his teens and early 20s and then beyond. The issue of his sex change operation that transformed Jim into Jenny is glossed over, and I had hoped by this time in the narrative to better understand the whole issue of transgendered people, who I freely confess, I don’t understand at all. Perhaps that’s not the book Jennifer intended to write; she intended to write of growing up haunted, both externally and inside her own body as a boy.
Spoiler alert: The best scene in the whole book doesn’t involve a ghost. It involves an overflowing toilet. The toilet not only overflows, it backs up, and gallons of water flood the home…and I can’t say any more except it’s hilarious.
Jennifer Boylan can write, that’s for sure. She writes articulately and lyrically about haunted houses, haunted genders, and haunted relationships.
I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if someone had told me it was about gender issues. But I’m glad I did. Maybe that was the intention of whoever wrote the jacket blurb – to introduce readers like me to author Jennifer Finney Boylan, a unique voice and strong talent in the world of memoir. I look forward to reading her next book and catching up with her previous books.
Rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5. A good read that I bought from a book catalog. The link from the cover image of the book at the start of this review will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase the book. I receive a small commission for the sale but it does not affect your price in any way.