"This is a gripping and fully-realized novel." —Emily St. John Mandel, National Book Award-nominated author of Station Eleven
2014 LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD FINALIST WINNER OF THE 2014 ALEX AWARD BOOKLIST TOP 10 FIRST NOVEL OF 2013 SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL BEST BOOK OF 2013
Max Walker is a golden boy. Attractive, intelligent, and athletic, he’s the perfect son, the perfect friend, and the perfect crush for the girls in his school. He’s even really nice to his little brother. Karen, Max’s mother, is determined to maintain the façade of effortless excellence she has constructed through the years, but now that the boys are getting older, she worries that the façade might soon begin to crumble. Adding to the tension, her husband Steve has chosen this moment to stand for election to Parliament. The spotlight of the media is about to encircle their lives.
The Walkers are hiding something, you see. Max is special. Max is different. Max is intersex. When an enigmatic childhood friend named Hunter steps out of his past and abuses his trust in the worst possible way, Max is forced to consider the nature of his well-kept secret. Why won’t his parents talk about it? What else are they hiding from Max about his condition and from each other? The deeper Max goes, the more questions emerge about where it all leaves him and what his future holds, especially now that he’s starting to fall head over heels for someone for the first time in his life. Will his friends accept him if he is no longer the Golden Boy? Will anyone ever want him—desire him—once they know? And the biggest one of all, the question he has to look inside himself to answer: Who is Max Walker, really?
Golden Boy is a novel you’ll read in one sitting but will never forget; at once a riveting tale of a family in crisis, a fascinating exploration of identity, and a coming-of-age story like no other.
My brother gets all As at school, and is generally always nice to everybody. He is on the county football team, which trains and plays at his high school, and they rotate captain between the three best players, which is him and his best friends, so for one month out of every three, he is captain of the team. People like him because he is fair and always calls out the names of the other players to support them and claps when they win, plus if they won because of someone else’s goal, he will always make sure that that person holds the trophy in the picture for the paper. He is like the perfect one of the two of us. Whenever my family is in the paper, they show pictures of my brother. Mostly they cut me out. My brother is much taller than me, and he also has lighter hair than me and straighter hair, and mine is quite curly and a darker yellow that some people say is ginger, which I have been teased about at school. Mum says he looks like an angel and I look like a little imp, but I don’t think she was trying to be insulting because she was smiling like I’d be pleased when she said it. My brother has proper muscles and can run really fast and wins all the races at school sports days. He also is doing a scholarship exam for the big school that goes after high school so Mum and Dad don’t have to pay any money for him to go, and he is probably going to get that, Mum says, because he works very hard and is naturally bright. His friends Marc and Carl are funny. They are humourous-funny, but also strange funny. When they are at our house sometimes they all go quiet when I walk in a room and I say: ‘Hey! You were talking about me!’ And they say ‘We weren’t.’ And I say: ‘What were you talking about then?’ And sometimes they make silly excuses but sometimes one of them will say: ‘We were talking about girls.’ And then I say: ‘No you weren’t! You were talking about me!’ And my brother will say: ‘No, really, Daniel, I promise we were talking about girls.’ And then I believe them because my brother would never, ever lie to me, because we are brothers and we have a blood pact never to lie to one another. A blood pact means you would die before you lied to each other. My brother is also really popular with girls. Carl told me so and so did Marc, and so did Mum. I also deduced this fact because a few times we have picked him up from school in the car and he has been talking to a girl and holding hands and then once… once he was kissing a girl and I was shocked and horrified and Mum laughed at my mouth, which was wide open, and beeped the horn and waved at him and my brother smiled and went red and got in the car and when he got in the car I said: ‘Why are you so red?’ And he said: ‘Shuddurrrp, Daniel.’ And Mum laughed again, even harder. The best thing about my brother, is that he is the most amazing player of World of War ever. He doesn’t even play it that often! He only plays it with me. He plays more on the Xbox with Marc and Carl usually, and we play on the Wii downstairs with Mum and Dad sometimes and he also very rarely but occasionally plays on the Sega, but really he doesn’t play many games because he is out playing football. But he does play World of War with me most nights and we play until eight or eight thirty and then I have to either have a bath and go to bed or just go to bed, but usually have a bath and go to bed. Then I will read to Mum before bed, or sometimes I will read to Dad, but usually Dad is not home yet. Sometimes my brother comes in and we have our talks, which are very interesting conversations about life. My brother says I am very wise and he is right. I always have advice for him. We are very different people. Some different things about the two of us are good though, like he is best at English and Geography and History, and he doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, but I am a very advanced robot designer for my age and I know exactly what I want to be when I grow up: a robotic engineer. I will do all the design on the robots and I will oversee the construction of the prototype and then I will make an entire robot race, or I will use my robot powers to add robotic extensions to normal human beings, so they can be whatever they want to be, like if you couldn’t see but wanted to be a fighter pilot I could add robot eyes which could give you 20:20 vision, or even better 40:40 vision and night vision, with the ability to detect both infra-red and ultra-violet light. You would have a dial on your head and you could turn it to see which one you wanted to see. People would come into my workshop, and I would look at them, and I would improve them until they were absolutely perfect, and couldn’t be improved further. I would work on my brother and make him really big and muscly and fast as a cheetah, and I would give him a really deep voice and a buzz cut and a gun that formed from his left arm when his heightened senses told him we were in danger. I told my brother what I wanted to be, and he said that it was cool but unfortunately he wouldn’t let me add extensions to him, because he wanted to be who he was, and see how that played out. I said that was stupid. Who wouldn’t want to be perfect? Or a robot? And this is why I have chosen to write my class essay about my brother. Sincerely, Daniel Alexander Walker, age nine and four fifths.
My parents were each other’s antithesis. My mother was a beautiful, sad woman, dark, small and quick to anger. She would mutter about sacrifice and everything she had given up for us. She died when I was sixteen and now I wish I had known her better. My father was tall, with golden hair swept from a side parting, and had a gentle, mild temperament. Dad used to practice law and would leave for York very early in the morning, every day, to go to his offices. Later, he became a politician. He saw enough of the world to have dreams for us, and when I could go—when it was still free to go study for a degree—he sent me to Oxford University. I was three years older than my sister Cheryl, and I didn’t want to go alone, so my friend Leah applied to train as a nurse in Oxford and followed me there. Two years after we moved to Oxford, she met Edward, a Philosophy major, while out rowing on the river. I was surprised she liked him so much, because Leah was so down-to-earth, and Edward was prone to arrogance. He felt too cold for warm Leah. Six months later, he took her for a picnic on that same river and proposed in front of all his friends. They were married and moved to Hemingway for Edward’s work. The houses were better value and roomier, and the town was quiet and safe. A few years after that, they found out they were going to have a baby, a boy. Leah had moved to the suburbs, but I loved Oxford. The city was where I became a lawyer, where I met my husband, where we bought our first apartment, where the buzz of energy took on a unique momentum and propelled even the most mundane start to an evening forward into something new, something different and unexpected. My boyfriend Steve was two years ahead of me in law school. After he graduated we would meet at the pub around six most nights, then either stay there until late, drinking and talking, or walk home together. He was from London, tall, leanly muscular, earnest, blithely goodlooking and deliciously self-righteous. He was passionate. We argued a lot but had the same values. We both strove for independence and control, but we had a different relationship with success, imagining it was already waiting for us. We were healthy and young and full of promise. We had no problems and no doubts. We got married in Oxford a few weeks after I graduated. Afterward we went for a meal at an Indian restaurant we both loved. We found out I was pregnant just before we closed on the apartment in Oxford, and we moved to Hemingway a few months after the birth of our first child. Steve was twenty-eight, and I was twenty-six. The move was unexpected, but suddenly Oxford was too claustrophobic. Our friends would drop by at all times, without calling ahead, and above all we wanted privacy. We took a long time, a few weeks, to decide on a name. Steve kept suggesting ones I hated: Jamie, Taylor, Rowan. In the end, he grew impatient with me and started calling the baby “Max.” After a while, it stuck. Later, when we had Daniel, our second child, my sister moved to Hemingway to be closer to me. Cheryl’s life is very different from mine. She traveled instead of going to university. Cheryl has had several long-term boyfriends but only got married last year, at thirty-eight, to Charlie, who has a wide, boyish grin and wild, curly hair. I know it sounds irrational, but sometimes I feel jealous of all the freedom and solitude she has experienced. As a barrister for the court and a mother of two, my own free time is precious. I spend it with my family, and when I get the chance I see Cheryl or Leah, but even these occasions seem to be few and far between. I call them both regularly but we only manage perhaps one lunch or dinner a month. Perhaps because we made similar choices in life, Leah and I are closer than my sister and I. I know if anything happened to me, Leah would be there for my children, and I would be there, if anything happened to Leah, for her son, Hunter, who, like many children without siblings, can be moody and controlling. I don’t share that thought with Leah obviously, because we all like to believe that our children are perfect, and personally, I wouldn’t want to be disabused of that notion. Despite Hunter’s bossiness, Max and he have been best friends since they were little and Leah and I have always been glad of this, because on shared holidays they are good at entertaining themselves. They are both resourceful, playing football together, exploring, swimming, surfing, fighting and making up without our input. Max is always the first, and sometimes the only one, to forgive, ever the peacemaker. Leah was the first person I confided in about Max’s condition, and Hunter has known since he was four. He was young when he found out, sharing a bath with Max before bedtime, but he seemed to understand as much as a child could. We just told him Max is different. Max is special.
This reading group guide forGolden Boyincludes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Max Walker is a true “golden boy” in everyone’s eyes—his mother’s, his brother’s, his teachers’, friends, and the girls at school. His parents are also very successful and are local celebrities in the affluent suburb where they live, especially now that Max’s father is standing for a seat in Parliament. But Max is hiding something: he is intersex. When an enigmatic childhood friend named Hunter steps out of his past and abuses his trust in the worst possible way, Max is forced to consider the nature of his well-kept secret. Why won’t his parents talk about it? Will his friends accept him if he is no longer the Golden Boy? Who is Max Walker really? Told from multiple perspectives, including Max, his brother Daniel, his mother Karen, his father Steve, his doctor Archie, and the “kook” Sylvie, who has stolen his heart, Golden Boy is a riveting tale of a family in crisis, a fascinating exploration of identity, and a coming-of-age story like no other.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Explore the theme of duality in Golden Boy. Max seems perfect in every way yet is physically imperfect, Karen is a perfectionist yet highly flawed, Steve is a politician yet is able to resist taking the “party line” when it comes to his son’s condition; Daniel appears to be the quirky black sheep of the family and Sylvie is a “kook,” but they may be the most “normal” characters of them all.
2. Discuss the theme of public vs. private life in the book. How far does this political “golden” family’s protection of privacy extend into their home and hearts? And despite her hesitation about Steve running for office, in what ways is Karen even more of a politician than her husband?
3. Daniel often refers to Max as a superhero. In what ways can Max be compared to heroic figures in books, comics, and movies? Max would probably consider his intersexuality his biggest weakness. Would you say that it is in fact his biggest strength? If so, why? Do you think his intersexuality makes him see and experience the world in a way that others might not?
4. When Daniel asks Max what the scariest thing in the world is, Max tells him “the scariest thing is a secret.” (p. 260) Talk about this underlying theme of the novel—the damage that secrets and silence can do. How would this story have been different if the Walker family were more effective communicators?
5. Discuss Archie’s role in the book as both the practical, medical voice in the novel, as well as a mother figure. How is she able to help and protect Max, unlike Karen?
6. Hidden identities and genders, gravesites, star-crossed love, duels (if only on Xbox), death, misguided parental figures, complicated villains, a doctor/apothecary/priest figure, even a twist on the “To be or not to be” question. In what other ways does Golden Boy pick up on themes from beloved Shakespeare plays like Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night?
7. Discuss the setting of this novel, the fictional town of Hemingway, a suburb of Oxford, England. Can you imagine the story taking place in an American town?
8. Hunter appears very clear-cut on the surface. Before we even meet him, his name signifies that he is the villain. But is there more to him than that? Do you think he loved Max?
9. The subject of intersexuality has been explored in recent novels, such as Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Annabel by Kathleen Winter. How does Abigail Tarttelin’s portrayal compare and contrast?
10. Dr. Archie Verma asks herself “how detrimental is intersexuality, really, to a person’s life?” (p. 320) What does Max’s story add to a discussion about gender norms? What does it add to a discussion about trans children?
11. Steve says that if he and Karen take away Max’s “right to his own choices . . . he stops making decisions for himself, he forgets how to stand up for himself and things like this happen. People like Hunter will happen to him.” (pp. 329-330) Do you agree? Was Steve or Karen somehow to blame for what happened to Max?
12. What might a feminist reading of Golden Boy /intersexuality be? Or, what could Golden Boy and intersexuality add to a feminist discussion?
Enhance Your Book Club
“XXY,” an Argentinian film about a fifteen-year-old intersex girl.
Abigail Tarttelin is a writer, an actress, and the book editor for Phoenix magazine in the UK. Her novel, Golden Boy, received a 2014 Alex Award and was a finalist for the 2014 Lambda Literary Award. She lives in London. Find out more at AbigailTarttelin.com.
“Abigail Tarttelin is a fearless writer. In Golden Boy, she balances a harrowing coming of age with a deeply compassionate portrait of a family in crisis, and the result is sometimes brutal, often tender, and always compelling. This is a gripping and fully-realized novel.”
– Emily St. John Mandel, National Book Award nominated author of Station Eleven
“Abigail Tarttelin has written an unforgettable novel. Golden Boy pulls you in from the very first page and holds you tight, gripping you by the throat and not letting go until it reaches its brilliant and masterful conclusion. Max Walker is the golden boy, and you will root for him, cry for him, fear for him, at times get angry at him but guaranteed you will never forget him. Not ever. The characters who make up Max's universe, from determined Karen, to distant Steve, to a deceitful Hunter, are all written in a perfect pitch. The dialogue is real, the pace is stealth bomber fast, and the plot never lets up. Tarttelin has blasted it out of the park in her first at bat here in the States. She has written a novel that goes beyond the page and reaches into a reader's heart and stays there, never to leave, never to be forgotten. Golden Boy is that good of a novel, and Tarttelin is that gifted of a writer. This book simply deserves to be read and treasured.”
– Lorenzo Carcaterra, author of Sleepers and Wolf
“Golden Boy is at once meditative and swift, a coming-of-age tale about the difficulties of growing up amid shame and secrets and success. Abigail Tarttelin writes with a sharp-eyed grace in this fascinating, heartfelt gem of a novel.”
– Dean Bakopoulos, author of My American Unhappiness
“Golden Boy is terrific. A poignant, brave and important book.”
– S.J. Watson, author of Before I Go To Sleep
“Gritty yet humane, startlingly modern yet utterly timeless, Golden Boy hits all the deepest, biggest novelistic notes—family, identity, tragedy and hope—without the merest hint of strain. In Abigail Tarttelin's American debut, she has already proven herself to be a writer of extraordinary empathy and incredible wisdom... and she makes it look so easy. Tarttelin is the real deal.”
– Rachel Shukert, author of Starstruck and Everything Is Going To Be Great
“A dramatic, thoroughgoing investigation of the complexities of sexuality and gender.... A warmly human coming-of-age story, thanks to the fact that Max is such an appealing character. And so his desperate search for identity is gripping, emotionally engaging, and genuinely unforgettable.”
– Booklist (starred)
“Gripping and beautifully-written, Abigail Tarttelin's Golden Boy is a courageous and profound exploration of social and sexual identity and its world of manifold complexities and challenges."
– Sahar Delijani, author of Children of the Jacaranda Tree
“Tarttelin writes sensitively about how an intersex child might cope with the heightened emotions of adolescence.”
– Entertainment Weekly
“...intense and fearless.... With empathy and imagination, Tarttelin describes an adolescent search for identity made monstrous by Max's uncertainty over that self-identifier most of us take for granted: am I a man or a woman?”
– Publishers Weekly
“Teens will love kindhearted Max, whose journey through adolescence is a nightmare few will experience.”