In the Eighteenth century, there are very few options for a female of questionable birth. When Mary’s brother Mark dies young, their mother decides that Mary should take his place. Dressed as a boy, Mary finds that she has more opportunity than she might have otherwise, but she also must be more careful. To be caught impersonating a man could mean a sentence of death for both her and her mother.
This book follows Mary, as Mark, through three parts of her life over less than half a dozen years. In her early years living as a young man in order to help her mother make ends meat, she finds herself falling for her friend, who doesn’t know was born a girl. Then, in a short period of time living with her paternal grandmother, where her mother hopes ‘Marc’ will be named the wealthy matriarch’s heir, Mary finds herself enjoying flirting with the maids. And finally, her journey takes Mary to the high seas where Mary turns pirate and finds herself falling for Anne, the Captain’s girl.
This book is tricky to review because while I wanted to enjoy the book, I didn’t at all. This was due to several factors, most of all the quality of the writing. It came across in several ways, but for the purposes of this review I’ll focus only on my biggest concern.
I found myself confused about Mary’s gender and sexuality through the whole thing. This might be in part because Mary herself is confused about both as well. For one thing, living as Mark was not her idea, it was her mother’s. Mary is very conflicted about how she wants to present through the entire book. She seems to enjoy the privilege and freedom that comes from being a man, but at the same time she envies Anne and other women their femininity. This is exacerbated by Mary’s attraction to both men and women. While living as a man, Mary’s attraction to her best friend is logical because she knows she is a woman, but dangerous because the world would see her as a gay man, or ‘molly’. But attraction to women comes with it’s own dangers. While the world may see her as a man, there is always the risk of being exposed as a girl.
In addition to Mary’s confusion, I found the story itself not entirely well written. I can’t help but feel that if the same story had been written with more skill, that Mary’s struggles would have been easier for me to understand and accept. As it was written, I found it impossible to sort through her experience to identify how Mary identifies (or would identify if she’d lived in a time where gender and sexuality labels existed and were widely known).
Potential readers should also be aware that the book includes many homophobic and transphobic moments. The title of this book especially is very literal. At one point Mary’s chest bindings are forcibly removed, revealing her as a girl. Folks who may find themselves triggered by such might consider avoiding this particular book.
Overall, The Unbinding of Mary Reade didn’t live up to my personal expectations, and I would recommend that anyone interested in reading it check to see if their local library has a copy before purchasing one.
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