Each memoirist chooses flashpoints to segment her life: jobs, elections, romantic relationships, rehab stints. In the memoir Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, Jennifer Finney Boylan selects beloved canines as her narrative device and shares the life lessons they imparted in life and death. Yet the heart of the book is about learning self-love and learning to love others well in turn. For someone like Boylan who struggled with her gender identity for most of her life, those victories were hard-won.
Boylan is a contributing New York Times opinion writer, and she has detailed her life’s complex journey in other memoirs. (She is best known for her 2003 bestseller She’s Not There). In Good Boy, she writes about looking to her father for clues on masculinity in a ’70s suburban boyhood. As an adult, she imitated manhood as best she could but wanted desperately to unveil herself and be truly seen. She writes, “When women would say Je t’aime or its equivalent, my first reaction was to think, ‘Yeah, well. That’s only because you don’t know me well enough.’” It was not until her 40s (married to a woman, with two kids) that Boylan came out publicly as trans and learned that she could be loved for exactly who she is. The path was not easy, yet she injects warmth, humor and spirituality into its retelling.
Despite the book’s title, the family’s dogs have not all been “good.” There’s been peeing, jumping, humping and general canine destruction. But people are not “good” all the time either, and Good Boy will be relatable to those who believe dogs can teach us about unconditional love—or at least patient understanding. Though pet stories can veer into the saccharine, rest assured that this memoir does not. Frankly, some dogs don’t seem to have liked Boylan that much (which, as a teen, provided a valuable life lesson about facing unrequited romantic love).
Though it’s a great book for dog lovers, Good Boy isn’t a feel-good story about the unbreakable bond between human and beast. It’s a chronicle about the enduring messiness of humans, and how we’re worthy of love anyway.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Jennifer Finney Boylan talks about life, death, self-acceptance and, of course, dogs.