Jack Fitzgerald,
(toExcel, 1999)

Contessa is the fictional autobiography of a famous actress recounting for the first time her years before stardom. This great actress also just happened to have started her life out as a man. The story examines the trials of life for a young man who knows that he is really a she, and just has the wrong biological gender. The story spans early childhood, adolescence, and finally young adulthood.

The basic idea behind this story is fascinating. The exploration of the conflict experienced by young Clyde/Countessa is handled very well, and this character is an alluring, engaging figure. The experiences of violence and sexual prejudice are shocking, and, I feel, quite realistic in their nature. Beyond this, however, the text falls prey to some major flaws.

Contessa herself poses the first few problems for me, in that she seems to put herself into situations which are bound to cause problems. If you were a transgendered male who exhibited highly feminine qualities and spent your entire life being picked on, would you think that the army was the best place for you? Lo and behold, when Clyde joins the army, it's no picnic. This and a few other examples of a similar vein are the only real problems I had with the character of Contessa, who really held the book together on her own.

While the title character is quite intriguing, the multitude of secondary characters tend to fall short, as they jump in and out of the somewhat choppy episodes of Contessa's life. Some of these characters offer truly valuable lessons of friendship and kindness to Contessa, but they jump in and out of her life so quickly, it is difficult to feel the same attachment to them that Contessa does.

From what I can tell, I was not reading a proof of this book, but the edition I had should have been one. The text is peppered with punctuation mistakes and spelling errors. This is not to say that every word is misspelled, but there is probably a mistake somewhere between every ten to twenty pages (which in a 530-page novel adds up). On the first page characters are referred to as "loud, course and vulgar," which is probably the most common mistake, where homophones are exchanged. There are also cases, however, where something like "dent" is written where "don't" ought to appear. One of the other irritating errors was in the frequently misused quotation marks. In some cases a paragraph would start with quotations, and not end with them, and in other cases the opposite was true. In either case, it meant having to go back a re-read the paragraph a few times to figure out whether or not it was meant to be dialogue. This may not be the problem of Jack Fitzgerald; truly, these are editorial mistakes, and a good editor would have caught them. In any case, the frequency of these mistakes detracts significantly from the work in that they are extremely distracting.

The story that Contessa's life is framed with is not great, but it is more the story of the person than the things that happen to her, so this can be somewhat excused. The first half of the novel constitutes of a series of anecdotes, and the second half (and far superior half) is the extended narrative of Clyde's experiences becoming Contessa. The reason that the second half outweighs the first is that it is more detailed in its characterisations of both Contessa and the others in her life. This most likely stems from the fact that the early anecdotes are all interesting enough to have made narratives of their own. For the sake of the length of the book, however, this couldn't be done and in an effort to say everything he wanted to, Fitzgerald included these incidents as incomplete fragments. Many of these fragments simply reiterate the same messages in slightly different ways. It feels like Fitzgerald wanted to say everything that he possibly could, and sacrificed what could have been a much better, and more concise novel in the process.

[ by Kristy Tait ]

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