Sunday, September 22, 2019

Book Review: 'The Scented Chrysalis' by José Sotolongo

The Scented Chrysalis by José Sotolongo

‘You’re a man of conscience’

Cuban borne José Sotolongo is both an author and a poet – and combines these gifts in this impressive novel that explores gender identity as an aspect of the coming of age spectrum, and in doing so shares the angst of a period of time when accepting same sex longing was threatened not only by global homophobia but also by that dark plague of AIDS. José lives in rural central New York.

The eloquence of José’s writing is matched by his inordinately sensitive insights evident from the opening of his book as he describes the inception of the main character from the act of fertilization by his parents through the biological process of an egg and a sperm becoming an embryo. And while that may not at first appear to be an apt opening for a story, in the author’s skilled hands it becomes magic. To wit, as the embryonic maturation progresses, he writes, ‘As expected, one of the chromosomes in the embryo, from either the spermatozoa or the egg (we can’t be sure) carried instructions on how the brain would develop. The brain in the embryo grew normally, but the chromosome’s instructions made a certain section grow differently than that of most other embryos. And so as the brain grew, the section that determined which gender the male embryo would be attracted to after birth grew bigger, and with different chemicals, than ninety percent of male embryos. Of course, the young woman wouldn’t know this for many years to come.’

With this signature degree of wisdom, original thought, and sensitivity the story unfolds, and inserting the author’s summary of the book assists appreciation: ‘The Scented Chrysalis is the story of a young man married to a woman who slowly realizes he is gay and seeks counseling at a religious retreat. Lucas is an assistant district attorney in New York City, married to Angie, another professional in the metropolis. They’re young, healthy, and miserable in their marriage. When their relationship reaches the brink of self-destruction, Lucas goes on a retreat to a monastery looking for answers, despite the fact that he has no religious faith. With the help of a monk who is a trained psychotherapist, Lucas begins to accept what we have been witnessing all along since we met him in infancy: despite his love for and devotion to Angie, he is primarily attracted to men. Through the backstories of the people in Lucas’ life, we see the horrible impact of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s and 90’s on the already stigmatized gay community, and the damaging intolerance towards gay people and their families. For his part, Lucas is filled with self-hatred, because he views himself as a pariah. It is only through careful thought and analysis in the monastery that he sees the similarities between oppressive, totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century and the persecution of the gay community.’

Few novels have been able to explain the epicenter of gender identification and the stressful journey gay men face in their coming out process as well as this fine novel achieves. A fascinating story, very well told, becomes a resource of courage, an unveiling of possibilities made even more strong by the connection of insight coming through the setting of a monastery. So many windows open when reading this story – and strong light is focused on the significant gifts of José Sotolongo. Very highly recommended.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.