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Lily and Dunkin

Review

Lily and Dunkin

It would be easy to dismiss LILY AND DUNKIN, by Donna Gephart, as being precious and perhaps a bit too on the nose. Or to even peg it as capitalizing on the Social Justice Warrior “Battle of the Week.” Except, much like its contents, there’s nothing easy about this novel, and the prescience behind it’s admittedly timely release is, frankly, bewildering. It would be enough to tackle such a hot button topic, but Gephart chooses to incorporate another, more personal issue into the story - mental illness. In this case, bi-polar disorder. Told from the perspectives of Tim, who is on the verge of manhood but wants to be known as her true self, Lily, and Norbert, who seeks stability and just wants to fit in --- he also wants to be known by any other name (hence, Dunkin) --- LILY AND DUNKIN is a story of acceptance and forgiveness, heartbreak and, in a way, tragedy.

"Gephart acknowledges the adversity but offers hope, speaks truthfully about the pain and the difficulty and offers the chance for both the reader and the subjects of the story to learn so much along the way."

Transgender issues, in one way or another, are currently at the forefront of a growing awareness of social, racial and gender inequalities that we have seen spill into the mainstream over the past several years. While it’s one that has percolated for a good amount of time, it’s only been the last year that we’ve truly seen transgender rights take center state. LILY AND DUNKIN is small in scope --- that’s not to say the emotional and mental stakes are not broad and sprawling, of course --- but manages to utilize its laser focused setting as a means to tackle a significantly, and significant, larger set of problems. The dichotomy of a family on the verge of acceptance, in Lily’s case, is a fascinating and gut-wrenching look at a household divided. While Lily’s mother and sister have come to accept and love Lily for who she is and who she identifies as, her father is continually resistant --- never violently, but with a seething intensity that can be equally as disquieting. For Dunkin, his family’s history with mental illness is the reason for his chance encounter with Lily, and his own battle is the catalyst for his own acceptance.

Both the idea and the actual practice of acceptance are prominent throughout --- and not just externally speaking. Lily and Dunkin each seek acceptance for who they are and have to battle expectations about who others want them to be. But their internal acceptance is something else entirely, and perhaps even more important. Lily is aware, painfully, of who she is. Dunkin, as well, feels a certain weight --- though his comes from the weight of his father’s illness and the uncertainty of moving to a new state. Lily and Dunkin’s chance encounter works in ways that are predictable, but there’s heartache and confusion, misguided attempts to please others before themselves and decisions that ripple outwards in ways that hurt.

At first, pairing someone working through mental health issues with someone dealing with the unknowable struggle of trying to be someone they’re not --- and trying her best to be the person she knows he is --- might have gone terribly wrong. But author Donna Gephart manages to balance both characters well, and the literary conceit of presenting the story as the inner dialogue of each character works to the story’s advantage. Though each of their individual stories are fraught with tension and a sense of despair, there is a sheen of positivity to how things unfold, an almost fairytale-like quality to how the stories resolve. Lily does manage to come across as a bit of a saint, while Dunkin is somewhat of a villain even in his own story. Whether or not that was intentional and part of the story itself --- someone who is aware of their instabilities may actually feel like the villain.

It is easy to understand, though, why Lily is who she is within this particular story. She’s meant to be an avatar, a character through which others can see themselves, or their ideal selves, as they undertake this journey. And that’s LILY AND DUNKIN’s true strength. Gephart acknowledges the adversity but offers hope, speaks truthfully about the pain and the difficulty, but offers the chance for both the reader and the subjects of the story to learn so much along the way. As an educational exercise, LILY AND DUNKIN could be an enlightening, important piece of realistic fiction, especially as we move through such challenging times as a society. As a work of realistic fiction, it’s prescient and provocative without being exploitative. We can only hope that the compassion and understanding found within LILY AND DUNKIN’s pages can manage to spill out into the streets and into the hearts and minds of those who cross it’s path.

Reviewed by Jared William Bowers on May 23, 2016

Lily and Dunkin
by Donna Gephart

  • Publication Date: May 1, 2018
  • Genres: Children's 10+, Young Adult 10+
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Yearling
  • ISBN-10: 055353677X
  • ISBN-13: 9780553536775