I am almost as old as Gabriella Goliger. This may, in fact, be a disadvantage in reading and enjoying Girl, Unwrapped by Ms. Goliger, a long-term Canadian whose first novel has erupted on the world after fifty years of practice. I am no stranger to memoir; my first novel is about 50% memoir. Neighter am I a stranger to Montreal, having hiked (and I use the term with full knowledge) the elevation from McGill up to the top of the mountain on which Toni Goldblatt, Goliger’s lead, spends her earliest years. The coming-of-age story of young Ms. Goldblatt seems as vital as the stories I hear from the college girls in my creative writing classes. The advantage that Goliger shares with us is the distance – a good thirty years – that brings with it the wisdom to choose just those moments that made Toni who she became.
Born to Holocaust survivors, Toni’s life goes off the greased rails of her parents’ expectations in the primary grades, when her mother brings home one pouffy, girly textile monstrosity after another. Young Toni, the epitome of tomboy, is as horrified by these creations as her mother is with the scruffy, dirty jeans and tops that she favors. Toni’s body further trumps her mother’s expectations, growing tall and rail-thin, like her father. Her expulsion from summer camp after her drunken pledge of eternal devotion and love for the music teacher, a woman, cement her status as a lost child for her poor mother. I almost feel sorry for Toni’s mom – almost.
This is how Goliger shines. I feel the spirit of the androgynous child. I feel the passion of her desperate crush on the music teacher, incredibly hot and barely old enough to be called a woman. I feel the need to connect, in Zionism, with an idea greater than oneself. I see the women, young and old, of Toni’s life through her emerging lesbian eyes, not my own. There is only one beef I have with this excellent memoir. Goliger is of the “Hope-I-Die-Before-I-Get-Old” generation. It shows. Her protagonist lives 35% of this book as a child, and another 35% meeting her first crush and chasing her all the way to Israel. That leaves thirty percent of the book. I say that Goliger tried too hard to work Toni’s identity as a young adult lesbian in here, as if there wouldn’t be another book. Or could it be that the juice of Toni’s life is sucked dry by the time she is only 25? As “Girl, Unwrapped,” Toni is pretty well unwrapped and exposed by the time she ends her girlhood. As deeply as I bonded with Ms. Goliger’s character through her exodus from girlhood, I would have gladly read a sequel that revealed how this coming of age tale formed the young woman that I would have loved to come to know.