On Borrowed Wings, by Chandra Prasad, is a book whose plot is easily summarized. I should know, because I've told quite a few people about it, and said that it's about a girl, Adele, who dresses as her brother Charles and goes to Yale in 1936, 33 years before Yale admitted female undergraduates. The plot is simple, yes, but what it explores is not simple at all. I first heard about this book over at A Work in Progress, which was what inspired me to look for it on the library shelves.
Novels of female crossdressing are familiar--Tamora Pierce's Song of the Lioness Quartet (probably known to most people as "the Alanna books") stands out to me simply because it was the first one I ever read, long before I would have thought to question the implications of such a plot. And it's not just that I was too young when I read them, those novels simply don't go very deep into it. Twelfth Night, of course, is another example, and I'm sure there are other Shakespeare plays like this.
On Borrowed Wings is unique in what I've read in questioning what this story means in terms of gender. As a boy Adele can achieve more, have more opportunities, but to what degree must she really become a boy, how does this affect her as a girl? One forgets, almost, to think of her as a girl at all. Even when she reveals herself as female to another character, I had trouble thinking of her as a girl, couldn't tell if the other character changed how they interacted with her, wondered if she'd changed her voice in momentarily becoming, even partially, a girl. Adele wonders at one point in the book if she even still knows how she sounds as a girl. Only once after arriving at Yale does she put her girl's clothes on. Even without any clothes at all, her gender is still questionable. One wonders how much gender really matters at all. Amelia Earhart also appears in the book; Adele is not the only character who's changed something about what her gender means. And then, of course, Adele is heterosexual as a woman, but homosexual as a man, and what difference does this make?
Apart from the subject matter, it's a good book. The writing is, for the most part, unremarkable, and sometimes a little self-conscious, but it has certain moments of loveliness. I took note of one bit, early on in the novel: "All I carried with me on the train was the carpetbag and a woebegone suitcase. It surprised me that my world, swollen to the breaking point with fancies and fears, could be contained in these meager spaces." It was well-plotted and often a bit suspenseful; at least, I never quite knew how it was going to end.
The book leaves many paths open, a profusions of opportunity for speculation as to how Adele's future might go. It doesn't answer the questions it raises about who Adele is as a woman or a man, and it leaves open who she might finally become, if she becomes either definitely. And it's a very hopeful book. Knowing as we do what the future beyond 1936 looks like, we know that whatever Adele becomes she will have her chances.
And I have a feeling I'm going to be on the lookout for more books with characters of dubious gender.