When she was a boy, Jennifer Finney Boylan grew up with ghosts. Her family's Victorian house, crumbling among the impeccable and impressive digs populating the Pennsylvania Main Line, also housed a number of spectral residents who had met unfortunate, sorrowful ends. A sensitive and slight boy, James Boylan resigned himself to cohabitating with the resident ghosts and their door-slammings, wall-whisperings, and flashes in the mirror with a sensible mix of terror, curiosity, sympathy, and humor. Which is kind of how Boylan related to himself.
Back then I knew very little for certain about whatever it was that afflicted me, but I did know this much: that in order to survive, I'd have to become something like a ghost myself, and keep the nature of my true self hidden. And so I haunted that young body of mine just as the spirits haunted the Coffin House, as a hopeful, wraithlike presence otherwise invisible to the naked eye like helium, or J.D. Salinger, or the G-spot.
It's precisely this disarming mix of introspection and spot-on humor that makes I'm Looking Through You such a compulsively readable memoir, and Boylan such a likable narrator. Her talent for the absurd in relating her family's lovable wackiness and their haunted home gives levity to the heart of her story that James grew up as a boy haunted by the woman he would become, the woman he knew he was meant to be. We see a young, delicate boy growing up full of lust and dreams and creative inclinations, wrestling painfully with the giant specter of his true nature and hoping desperately to be transformed.
My one chance, I thought, was that someday someone might fall in love with me, and that the alchemy of passion would transform me into a human like other humans. Maybe, I thought, if I was funny enough, or clever enough, or inventive enough to be desired, I might yet leave my translucent self behind and at last turn into something solid.
Which, all eventually happens, in one way or another, often in quite beautiful ways, probably not at all how young James expected. Discovering how it all plays out is the great pleasure of racing through this memoir into the wee hours, through its deep sorrows and many joys, guided kindly by Boylan's bracing wit and deep empathy, both for others, and for her previous self. An unexpectedly graceful mix of ideas about ghosts, childhood, sexuality, gender, family, death, and the many ways one can be haunted, I'm Looking Through You resonates deftly and memorably on many levels.
This review was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the October 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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