So the cool thing about this book is that it’s told in two parts. Well, actually, that’s not the cool thing – the cool thing is that two versions of How to be Both were published simultaneously, one version with one protagonist’s story first and the other swapped around. It was pretty much left to chance how each reader would experience the book.
How to be Both is about George, a tomboyish teenage girl desperately trying to reconnect with her recently deceased mother through remembering a trip they took to Italy to see the works of the painter. It’s also about Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa, his life and works, and this strange boy who piques his curiosity by viewing and reviewing one of his portraits.
My thoughts on this book are twofold, because I read it in two parts. I got George’s story first, and as much as I enjoyed Smith’s writing and the story she was telling, it was really hard to get into. I think this was for two reasons: Firstly, I was in the midst of a really tough time, so I had trouble suspending my reality for long enough to really get comfortable in George’s head; Secondly, George was also going through a tough time, and it was really hard to relate to a character who was pretty much wandering around in a haze of grief, trying like crazy to make sense of a world that no longer had her mum in it.
George is constantly questioning the value of witness: one of the scenes that really stuck with me was how she stumbled across a pornographic film in which the girl didn’t appear to be having a good time, and so she swore to watch it every day in order to witness the girl’s suffering. On the other hand, her mum was paranoid that she was being watched, and George has inherited that paranoia.
One of the ways George tries to keep her mum’s memory alive is by travelling often to London to view del Cossa’s portrait of St Vincent Ferrer, remembering their trip to Italy to view the frescoes in the Hall of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia. It is through this that we see the connection between George and del Cossa: while George is viewing the painting, Francesco is viewing her. So we meet Francesco del Cossa, and learn about his life while he learns about George’s.
How to be Both spends much of its time drawing attention to the way we gender others. This is a thing we do constantly, without even thinking about it: breasts, girl. Long hair, most likely a girl. Hairy legs, boy. Short hair, most likely a boy. Francesco del Cossa, in this story, was born a girl, but such was her talent with colour and form that her parents disguised her as a boy to send her off to an apprenticeship; he spends the rest of his life identifying as male, and history identifies him as male as well. George is a girl, but her short hair and tomboyish clothes cause the artist to gender her as a boy, and so we only really know that she’s a girl because, for me anyway, I already had half a book telling me that she is.
I often say to people when I’m telling them about this book that I’d have enjoyed it more if I had read the artist’s story first, as he’s connected to the girl through her artwork, and there are elements of her story that bleed through. Chronologically, I think my story was in order, but I would have quite enjoyed reading about the artist and this queer boy he was haunting, then picking up and seeing what motivated George’s actions, rather than the other way around.
As I’m writing this though, it occurs to me – if this was a standard book; if this book had been printed in one version and one version only – there’s no way it would have occurred to me that I would have enjoyed the story the other way around. The sheer possibility that I may have, though – that it was mere chance that led me to read the story in the order it was presented – that’s making me really think about what it was that made this book tick, and whether or not I might have related to it better in a different circumstance.