Set in fictitious First Sister, Vermont, beginning in the mid-1950’s and continuing through five decades, this marginally satisfying novel follows the sexual awakening of young Billy Abbott at the all-boys Favorite River Academy and his first forays into that realm in the town’s library operated by “Miss” Frost. It is Billy’s new feelings that send him to the library for books on “dangerous crushes on the wrong person,” where he is smitten by striking, enigmatic Miss Frost. It is an intimate encounter with Miss Frost that marks the demarcation line for Billy’s life on the wrong side of gender conventions.
As unsettling, if not unpleasant, as Billy’s teenage years were, it is his family and friends from that time that stick with him: ranging from his helpless mother, imperious aunt, stepfather and director of plays at the Academy, and cross-dressing grandfather to members of the Academy wrestling team including the beautiful Jacques Kittredge, his understanding friend Elaine, and the provocative Miss Frost. The last half of the book rather vaguely follows Bill’s extensive wanderings around Europe and the US as a writer and academic, not to mention his numerous encounters with transgender individuals.
Of course, any novel focusing on the alternative sexual community set in the last decades of the 2000’s has to take on the subject of AIDS. Curiously enough, if not entirely believable, Bill has no worries due to his precautionary measures. As part of the author’s details from that world, Bill is a “top,” not a “bottom” – apparently a safe orientation. It is too convenient that nearly every close acquaintance of Bill’s at FR Academy becomes infected with AIDS. A big disappoint is that the main characters are merely sketched. The ephemeral Elaine is a solid force in Bill’s life but remains largely unknown. The charismatic Kittredge is no more than a shadowy presence. Beyond the Miss Frost segment of Bill’s life, the remainder is treated superficially by comparison. The reader scarcely has a feel for Bill’s writings. The reader is left feeling shortchanged by this book.