“I have to figure out who I am.”
In Endpapers by Jennifer Savran Kelly, artist Dawn Levit doesn’t have the words for how she feels, for what she wants to be. It’s 2003, and New York City is a fractured place to live. Amid the chaos, Dawn is caught somewhere between wanting to be a “good girlwp_postsand wondering if she’s a girl at all. At work, she’s femme; at home, with a boyfriend who understands some of her desires, she’s able to explore the ways that masculinity calls to her — but she’s also constrained by his rejection of her feminine side. With her art at a standstill and her home life fraught, Dawn pours her energy into her work restoring books for the Met. But when one of the books reveals a 50-year-old love letter from one girl to another on the back of a fading pulp fiction cover, Dawn becomes consumed with finding the writer, convinced that solving that mystery will help her solve the question of her own identity.
Set against the authoritarian backdrops of the McCarthy era and George W. Bush’s post 9/11 America, Endpapers asks: What happens when we stop trying to force ourselves to be something we’re not? And in this world, is there a way to be our authentic selves, even when those people don’t fit neatly into one box or another?
They’re important questions. But the story’s scope feels limited by Dawn’s inability to see beyond her own experience. This is likely by design, but I found myself frustrated as Dawn moved through a world populated with fascinating and complex people, taking away only the small bits that she could use to craft her own personal narrative. At one point, when Dawn envisions a New York filled with “queer, beautiful bodies,” her friend Jae gently reminds her: “that city already exists.” I wanted to see more of that city in the book!
It’s a funny thing, to time-travel back to 2003. I was a year out of high school then, living with my first boyfriend, furtively checking out Queer as Folk DVDs from Blockbuster, sandwiching them between straighter movies as I walked up to the counter. It would be years before I let myself admit that I was queer, and decades before I would have language for any of my questions about my gender. Reading Endpapers, and imagining a world in which I was able to ask myself those questions as a younger person, was a real trip.
Like so many 25-year-olds before her, Dawn’s task, I think, is to separate the expectations in her head with those of the people around her, and ultimately let them all go. It’s an exercise that can be decades in the making, but this novel offers a glimpse of how that journey could’ve begun, once upon a time, in a city on the brink of a whole new millennium. While I wanted to see more of Dawn’s journey, I’m glad I was there for the start of it. I’ll be thinking about this one all week long!