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It's 2003,and artist Dawn Levit is stuck. A bookbinder who works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she spends all day repairing old books but hasn’t created anything of her own in years. What’s more, although she doesn’t have a word for it yet, Dawn is genderqueer, and with a partner who wishes she were a man and a society that wants her to be a woman, she’s struggling to feel safe expressing herself. Dawn spends her free time scouting the city’s street art, hoping to find the inspiration that will break her artistic block—and time is of the essence, because she’s making her major gallery debut in six weeks and doesn’t have anything to show yet.
One day at work, Dawn discovers something hidden under the endpapers of an old book: the torn-off cover of a lesbian pulp novel from the 1950s, with an illustration of a woman looking into a mirror and seeing a man’s face. Even more intriguing is the queer love letter written on the back. Dawn becomes obsessed with tracking down the author of the letter, convinced the mysterious writer can help her find her place in the world. Her fixation only increases when her best friend, Jae, is injured in a hate crime for which Dawn feels responsible. But ultimately for Dawn, the trickiest puzzle to solve is how she truly wants to live her life.
A sharply written, page-turning, and evocative debut, Endpapers is an unforgettable story about the journey toward authenticity and the hard conversations we owe ourselves in pursuit of a world where no one has to hide.
Part I Buchbinder
Because I’m not ready to go home. Home to Lukas. Because lately I get more pleasure from spreading open the covers of a book than my own legs. Because the pungent smell of ink and the soft touch of paper. I linger here—in the book conservation lab, after hours, after everyone has gone off to rejoin loved ones, even our boss, who usually stays because she has a project on the side.
Pausing, I inhale the quiet. Soon my hand is on the heavy wheel of the press, loosening and turning, the iron cool against my fingers. Soon I’ll know if this book can be one that’s finally worthy of exhibiting. Or even one that has anything to say.
Carefully I free the protective sheet of newsprint and then the pages, which I printed at the Center for Book Arts earlier this week and folded and gathered yesterday and stacked in the press today during lunch when no one was here to see. I take a moment to enjoy the uncomplicated thrill of a newly pressed book block. Perfectly flat, perfectly compact, a first hint of the separate coming together into one whole.
If only it were that easy.
I carry it to my workbench, where I’ve set out thread, dyed tan to match the paper, and black leather sewing tapes, lined with Japanese tissue. I promised myself I wouldn’t look at the content before sewing the folios together. I don’t want to talk myself out of finishing. But I peek at the first page, the letter-pressed words smooth and black against thick, nubby paper. It’s pretty.
Pretty isn’t art.
For a long time, art had been my savior. Lately it’s my spectacular failure. I’m supposed to be showing my work by now, like my former classmates, only there is no work. I’ve been vacant—of ideas, of images and words. So lately I’ve taken to spying, sitting in coffee shops and bars to eavesdrop on conversations. It’s amazing what you overhear people talking about in New York City—an old window washer who’s also an evangelist trying to convert a teenage girl; a mortified cop who had to spend his first few hours on duty investigating dolls that had been left in weird places, creating a fire hazard.
Turning the pages, I scan my drawings. The window washer proselytizes from his platform high above the street, squeegee in hand, dripping water onto his adoring masses. A pretty teen angel responds to his question: Yeah, I’m a good girl. Such sadness on her face. The police officer rounds up porcelain dolls from the street. Exquisitely dressed toy girls blocking sewers, mailboxes, and fire hydrants, donning signs with feminist slogans. Behind the officer, more cops attempt to go about their business with arms full of dolls announcing: My body, my choice; The future is female; Resist.
Somehow it’s not working. The renderings are competent and the scenarios interesting, but none of it has anything to do with me. I’ve been trying to find out what can happen, what I can make, if I forget everything the world wants to see when it looks at me. But under these bright fluorescent lights, my images only remind me once again that I’ve become more invested in hiding who I am than expressing it. Heart sunk, I brush my bangs across my forehead, the way the woman who cuts my hair instructed. “More feminine,” she’d said.
Am I though? I wonder to the empty room. Good? A girl?
As if to save me from my own thoughts, my phone buzzes and it’s Jae. Crappy day at work. Don’t let me smoke alone?
I laugh. At least I still have my sense of humor. Nice try, I write, and flip my phone closed. Jae knows I hate being high. His obsession with weed almost killed any possibility of us even becoming friends when we met a couple of years ago. I turn back to my book and rack my brain for a way to save it.
My phone buzzes again. How about we dress in drag and go dancing at Pyramid? Lukas and I wear makeup, you smoke. Deal? I shake my head and start to type, You’re joking, right? But looking down at my book, I pause. Jae knows I’ve been thinking about this for a while.
I type, Lukas would never, hit send, and close my phone.
A few minutes later: Fine. You and me then.
Ignoring him, I continue to scan my book. More drawings. More people in the city who appear to be living double lives. A businessman holding his dry cleaning high over his shoulder on a crowded sidewalk like Jesus carrying the cross. A homeless woman selling amateur magic tricks who, finally, disappears behind a cloud of smoke. Who are these people? What do they want? More important, what do I want from them?
What do I want?
I turn the page and my angel stares up at me, as if waiting for an answer. “Sorry to disappoint,” I say. “I don’t know how to save you.”
Though I hate to admit it, maybe Jae’s invitation has come now for a reason. Maybe the way to fix this, to make art again, is to face what I’ve been avoiding. Eyeing the book, I flip my phone back open. Before I change my mind, I type, Fine, you’re on.
My heart speeds up.
Leaving the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I submit to the crowd on the sidewalk, keeping its erratic pace as I take a left onto Fifth Avenue and walk four blocks to catch the 5 train downtown toward Brooklyn. When the doors of the train slide closed, I catch sight of my reflection in the window. I let my hair fall over my left eye and observe how the bulk of my coat erases my curvy hips and D-cup breasts. With my new Prohibition haircut, in my jeans and engineer boots, I can almost believe I’ve taken on the male form.
It’s still a bit jarring. For the last few years, I’ve been erring on the side of female. On the train, however, somewhere on the border of real life, where everyone’s a stranger and I can hide inside my coat, it’s easier to let myself slip. At the next stop, a seat opens. I sit, leaning back, widening my legs like men do. A woman across the way looks at me and, feeling emboldened, I wink. When she smiles, I look away, horrified by my transgression, my hands already on my bangs, sweeping them to the side.
Back at my apartment, as I zip Jae into my dress, I’m impressed by how easily he wears it, how much he never seems to care what people think. He primps in front of the mirror while Lukas looks on, amused—or perhaps interested—and I rummage through Lukas’s half of the closet, looking for something that will work for me. Trying on the second of his two button-up shirts, I study myself in the mirror and don’t know what’s worse: that I feel like a weird, misshapen man or a woman playing dress-up. Meanwhile, Lukas is helping Jae pick out makeup colors. Even though Lukas won’t go out dressed like a woman, he’s always eager for an excuse to get into makeup at home, as long as it’s around people he trusts. He looks happy helping Jae. And I should be glad to see them having fun, but my heart feels suddenly heavy. I’ve been avoiding Lukas all day, worried he’ll notice me brooding about yet another thing I can’t shake off. Earlier this week I tagged along to a party he was working at the Manhattan New Music Project, a reception for a local musician who’d won some indie award. While Lukas and I have become too practiced in our impression of a heterosexual couple—there I was in my black dress with the white collar and high-heeled Mary Janes, he in his button-up and tie—the musician still sashayed flamboyantly straight to Lukas. For most of the night, his hand was living it up on Lukas’s shoulder, and me, I may as well have not been there. Lately I’ve been missing when our love was easy. When the only way his touch felt was right.
“This isn’t working,” I say.
Lukas turns to me. “What do you mean? You look . . . nice.” He hesitates over the last word. I know how hard it is for him to give such a direct compliment, especially in front of someone else, and I soften a little.
Turning back to the mirror, however, I wish I could see what he sees. Sometimes it gets lost. Fed up with myself, I walk over to Jae and pull some lipstick and eyeliner from the makeup bag.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he says.
“The plan was for you to wear makeup. We never said I couldn’t.”
He looks from me to Lukas. “Seriously? The straight dude is the only one willing to go out in drag?”
Lukas laughs. “I have band practice.”
“Right, convenient,” I say. I lean toward the mirror and start to line my eyes. They both watch as if they’re going to stop me, but then return their attention to Jae’s face. When my own is complete, I reexamine myself and decide the shirt isn’t actually too bad, though it needs a tie. I throw one on, but instead of pants, I grab a pencil skirt from the closet and head to the bathroom. When I reemerge, Jae shakes his head. “What?” I say. “I’m in drag. I’m a man in a skirt and makeup.”
But I actually don’t hate what I see in the mirror. I pull my bangs back with a barrette. Maybe it’s not a cop-out after all but something closer to who I am. At least today. Lukas and Jae still look disappointed. I try to brush it off as nothing more than my imagination and hold my arm out for Jae, whose transformation is now complete. Before he comes to me, he turns to Lukas to say goodbye, batting his fake eyelashes and putting his hand out for a kiss.
Lukas takes it with a bow.
“Oh my god, stop being so cute and let’s go,” I say.
Finally, a couple of hours later, Jae and I are here, packed tight on the dance floor, me remembering why I hate being high and Jae looking ridiculously pretty in dark eyeliner, sparkly shadow, and cherry-red lipstick. His drag may be a bit rough, but he’s beautiful on the dance floor, in the colored smoky light, his body mingling with strangers, contorting to “Crazy in Love.” As I sweat in Lukas’s button-up, I envy how ordinary Jae looked on the subway ride here, as if this is a regular way for him to be out in the world. But of course for him it’s only drag, a costume. Meanwhile, I keep regretting my skirt, more concerned that people will see what I’m not than what I am.
After a few songs, Jae’s winded and we go to the bar for a second drink. His eyeliner is already running, and one of his fake lashes has come loose. I peel them both off, one at a time, as he shouts over the music about his crappy day at work, his coworker who insists on backseat-driving all his copyediting. I yell back at him to try to let it go for the night, enjoy the music, when some half-dressed dude reaches over us to signal the bartender. As he excuses himself, he laughs—at us—and says, “Fun outfits.” Then, to me, “You know, the city’s full of straight bars. It’s too bad you’ve wandered into the wrong place.”
Jae ignores him and tries to lead me back to the dance floor, but I pull away, my mood fallen like a brick. “Nah, let’s go,” I say, loud enough for the guy to hear. “I’m done with goddamn queers.”
“Whoa, take it easy,” says Jae. “I’m pretty sure he was kidding.”
“Fuck that. I’ll accept them when they accept me.”
Jae looks apologetically at me, and then at the guy, who’s not even paying attention anymore.
Outside, I feel pot-sick, out of control of myself in a way that makes breathing impossible. Suddenly I need out of my skin, out of Lukas’s shirt that’s straining to contain my body. This is exactly why I stopped hanging out with queers when I moved in with Lukas, why it was so comfortable to slip back into the closet. Trying to break myself to fit in, even among the marginalized, was exhausting. Now I can’t stop thinking about the dude at the bar, his self-important, patronizing face. Stupidly, I start to cry.
“Hey,” says Jae. “Hey, Dawn, it’s all right.”
“Whatever, fuck that guy. Come on, let’s walk.” I put two cigarettes in my mouth, light them, and offer him one.
“Where are we going?”
“Nowhere. I just need to keep moving.”
Jae is unfazed by my anxiety. He’s quiet and calm as ever, and as I walk next to him, my body grows solid again.
After several minutes we’re walking past Marble Cemetery, and even though I haven’t planned any of this, I stop and say, “Here we are.”
I peek through the bars of the gate, but I can’t see much in the dark. Jae joins me.
After a moment, he pulls his head back and blows out smoke. “That was fun. What next?”
“I barely saw anything,” I say.
“What do you want to do? Break in?”
I laugh like of course not, but the night has me feeling adventurous. I actually wouldn’t mind breaking a few rules. Quickly, I scan the street to see if anyone’s paying attention to us. There are hardly any people out at this hour. “Yeah, why not.”
“Very funny.” He grinds his cigarette butt into the sidewalk.
“I’m not joking.”
He shakes his head, but as he looks back at me, a hint of a smile animates his face. “In our dresses?” he says.
“Technically mine’s a skirt.” Before I lose my nerve, I hike it up to the tops of my legs and start climbing the gate.
“Holy shit,” says Jae. But soon he’s following.
Jae is content to poke around the graves with me. We wander, reading tombstones until they all sound the same. Then we come to one with a fist carved into it, reaching straight up.
“What does that mean?” I say.
“Not sure,” says Jae. “Hands mean different things depending on which way they’re pointing. But I don’t know about a fist.”
“It looks like someone’s trying to get out.”
“Smart corpse.” Jae starts walking again. “Speaking of getting out,” he says as I fall into step with him, “there’s another protest coming up. Some friends and I are making signs this weekend. You should come.”
I consider it for a moment. I’ve been feeling like I should do something tangible to protest what’s happening in Iraq instead of wasting my time trying to find a voice through art. But it’s the first time in a while I’ve dared to make anything at all.
“Maybe,” I say. “I’ve finally been playing around with some ideas for a new piece, and . . .” I’m afraid if I tell him about my recent failed attempt, it’ll sound so dumb, I’ll give up entirely. “Anyway, so far it’s been a mess, but I’m hoping to take time over the weekend to try to save it.”
He puts his arm around my shoulder. “No problem, bro. We make our own statements.”
We walk quietly with our arms around each other, and I want to capture the extra love and gratitude I feel for him tonight, so I pull out my camera and take a picture of us.
When we look at it, something about Jae’s glittery eyeshadow sparkling among so much cold, dead marble strikes us both as funny. Also, the way he’s standing, with no regard for the fact that he’s in a dress, makes me laugh out loud. “Oh my god, how can you look like such a dude in that outfit?”
“I don’t know what that means,” he says, pulling a cigarette from his boot. “Should I be offended?” He lights it and lets it hang from his mouth like a hard-boiled detective.
Laughing harder, I snap a picture. Then I take his cigarette so he can take one of me. It’s late, but we’re both energized, so we hop back over the gate and head to Tompkins Square Park, to a playground, to some old church, everywhere we go taking pictures of ourselves and each other, pretending to be tourists. We’re having so much fun we’ve forgotten about dancing. And Jae says now I have blackmail photos of him, so he has no choice but to trust me forever.
We ride back to Brooklyn on the subway and he walks me home. And then outside the door of my apartment building, I freeze up, wondering if Lukas might be awake. My mood still too fragile to be alone with him.
“Come on,” I say. “It’s too early to turn in. Let’s go get a drink.”
“Dawn, it’s way past midnight,” he says.
“So? When has that stopped you before?”
He shakes his head. “Okay, let’s have it. Did something happen with Lukas?”
I look away. “Nah, everything’s fine.”
Jae waits for me to say more.
“It’s nothing. Really. Just a crappy day. Just another crappy artist’s book.”
His face softens. He kisses me on the cheek. “I get it,” he says. “But for now, you should go drink some water. And tell Lukas I say good night.”
In the morning I watch Lukas from bed with half-open eyes. For once he’s woken before me, and it looks like he made breakfast. He’s standing at the stove, dishing something into a bowl. It smells fruity.
Carrying it over, he says, “Good morning. Did you have fun with Jae?”
I sit up against the wall and take the bowl, moving over to make room for him. My bag is next to me on the floor. I pull out my camera, toss it onto his lap, and take a spoonful of hot oatmeal. “Oh wow, is this mango?”
Lukas scrunches his face. “It’s weird, I know. I threw in a pinch of cinnamon, but I’m not sure if it’s good.” He sets the camera down. “Anyway, before I look at these, I wanted to give you something.” He reaches under his pillow and pulls something out.
“What is it?” I say.
“Just a mixed CD. I made it for you. Last night.” He gives it to me and looks away. It has a handmade cover, and on the front he’s written For Dawn. You’re the bee’s knees. Below, he’s drawn a beautiful burgundy bumblebee that looks like a woodcut print.
My face flushes. Even though it’s kind of goofy, he rarely says anything so clearly. I guess he knows I’ve needed to hear it.
I kiss him.
“It’s not a big deal,” he says.
“You know it is. And I love it. Also, I thought you had practice with Pete last night.”
“I did, but it only went for an hour, and you were out late.” He kisses me back. Then picks up the camera and scrolls through the pictures Jae and I took, shaking his head and smiling.
“Aha,” I say, poking his side. “Seems fun, right?” It’s become a little game, me trying to prove that Lukas is enjoying something anyone else also enjoys.
“Whatever, looks like you two had a good time. You gonna post it on Friendster?” He’s teasing, but his tone is still warm.
“Make fun all you want, but I got you.” I take the camera from him and pull him close, moving the bowl and CD out of the way, and bury my face in his long dark hair, resting my cheek against his neck. The smell of sleep is strong between us. Sleep and nicotine and sweet, old T-shirt. As I breathe him in, all the doubt from yesterday is already melting away.
He kisses me and then frees his arms and heads to the bathroom. I shovel the rest of the oatmeal into my mouth and leave the bowl in the sink as I make for the shower.
At work it’s right to business. There’s been a small accident in the stacks, a tiny leak in the ceiling that’s left at least one book water damaged. It’s an important one, Katherine said, so she wants me and my careful hands right there with some tools for quick repair and a cart to work on, in case I detect any more books that need a hand. I was more than happy to comply, to get away from her meddling stare, her complaints that I look too boyish today.
“What does that mean?” I’d asked.
“Depressed,” she’d said.
Bending over the cart and the book, I draw in stale, regulated air, run my fingers over the intricate design on the cover—a work of art in itself—and the indent made by each gold-stamped line. It’s an illustrated survey of art deco and art nouveau architecture, Building Beauty, bound in the early 1950s.
I ease open the cover to reveal water-stained endpapers splitting and yellowing along the gutter. Gently turning each page, I arrive at a photograph of Gaudí’s Casa Batlló—the hollow eye cavities of his skull balconies staring up at me from beneath a wavy roof that shines iridescent in the light captured by the photographer. Below the skulls, the building is a body, both shapely and skeletal, open through the middle to reveal the life inside. Pillars carved into bones frame windows rounded into organic shapes, colorful organs of stained glass. Everywhere my gaze falls, new details emerge. When finally I lift my eyes, I feel as if I’ve been transported back to the library stacks from somewhere far away. It takes me a few moments to return to myself.
With my hand still holding the lifting knife, I brush my bangs across my forehead.
Then, placing my tool between my teeth, I continue my inspection of the book. The water damage appears to be limited to the outer spine. The text block is intact aside from one loose signature. A new lining on the spine will be enough to hold it in place.
I open my strop and draw my lifting knife across it in figure eights as Katherine has taught me, until the round tip of the blade tapers into near invisibility. Then I open the back cover of the book and make a light incision with my scalpel along the inner edge of the board. The cover separates cleanly. In order to reattach it later, I’ll need to create a new hinge and slide it underneath the original endpaper. Slowly, I pass my lifting knife under the freshly cut edge to ease it away from the board as I hold the cover steady.
That’s when I notice a discrepancy in the feel of the board. Almost half of the endpaper has already come unglued, and looking closely, I detect a faint rectangular outline just inside the loose area.
With a sudden eagerness I crouch and bring my eyes down level with the book. Attempting to keep my lifting knife steady, I run it back and forth under the paper until I catch a glimpse of something underneath. I hold my breath. A few more strokes of the knife and I’m able to jiggle it free, leaving only one tiny tear behind.
What I finally hold in my hand confuses me. It’s a severed paperback cover for a book called Turn Her About, with a campy illustration of a woman looking into a handheld mirror and seeing a man’s face. The tagline reads “What was her dark secret? A powerful novel about a tragic love.” What is this doing here? I laugh. But then a trickle of fear descends as I remember my night out with Jae. What if someone from work saw us and is pranking me? I walk to both ends of the aisle, scanning the stacks, but there are no signs of life. The only sound aside from my footsteps is the hum of the HVAC system.
Back at the cart I examine the book cover again and flip it over. Handwritten on the back in tight script with light blue ink is a letter, written in German. Aside from a bit of glue in one corner where it had attached to the endpaper and some mild discoloration, the whole thing is undamaged. Putting the lifting knife back between my teeth, I turn the cover over in my hands several more times. Assuming it’s not a cruel joke, what are the chances that this particular image would have been hidden in a book that Katherine assigned to me?
The letter is addressed Liebe Marta, and signed Ich liebe Dich, Gertrude. I wish I could read it, but I don’t speak German. These opening and closing words are the only ones I recognize.
With the feeling I’m holding a ghost in my hands, I bring it up to my face and inhale the sickly sweet odor of animal glue. Despite the absurdity of the illustration and how I found it, for a brief moment I think I’m going to cry.
I know I should bring it straight to the lab, show it to Katherine and encase it in Mylar, but, as if it’s a rare treasure like I used to find in the woods as a kid—a four-leaf clover or the feather of a blue jay—I don’t want to let it go. Carefully, I sandwich it between two pieces of scrap paper and slip it inside my notebook.
“Sometimes the hardest thing to be is our authentic selves. How do we do that when society has hidden and erased any path that could show us the way? Dawn Levit finds that heroic path by believing in hunches and looking for clues. Not quite a mystery novel, this is a story of following one’s own inner desire for belonging through art and surprising friendships. Savran Kelly creates a story full of humans who we long to be friends with after the last page is read. Love is acceptance, and this book is that and more.”
—Amy Wallen, author of When We Were Ghouls
"Part portrait of the artist, part queer coming-of-age, and part investigative puzzle, this intimate, emotional novel parlays romance, passion, politics, and history into a compelling tale, beautifully and insightfully told. Jennifer Savran Kelly is an exciting, empathetic new voice.”
—J. Robert Lennon, author of Subdivision and Let Me Think
“Endpapers is a richly imagined and moving novel about identity, desire, and art. Its characters are believable and engaging, its plot intriguing, but just as important is its urgent subtext, a plea for humans to break free from constricting labels and instead behold each other in all their thorny, unpredictable individuality; to love complexity and uncertainty, rather than ideology and order. This just might be the most urgent issue of our time, and Endpapers tackles it with energy and—that most apropos weapon—subtlety.”
—Brian Hall, author of The Stone Loves the World
“Jennifer Savran Kelly’s Endpapers immerses us in the world and mind of her engaging but struggling narrator Dawn—genderqueer, Jewish, a book conservator on a desperate search for queer role models and an artistic community. Endpapers is about the need to be fully seen—to locate oneself in the past in order to feel visible in the present. Savran Kelly is a masterful and compassionate storyteller, one who finds hope in the antidotes to hate and violence: community, art, authentic self. This is a book for all of us!”
—Lori Ostlund, author of After the Parade
"A mystery wrapped in a love story wrapped in an artist’s coming of age, Endpapers is an ode to queer joy and the messiness of selfhood. With tenderness and insight, Jennifer Savran Kelly explores what we lose when we keep our innermost selves hidden—and what it means to forge an authentic life through art."
—Antonia Angress, author of Sirens Muses
“Jennifer Savran Kelly’s Endpapers is the most personal novel about life as a gender-nonconforming person that I’ve ever read. It opens a window into what it’s like to live in a world where you need to disguise who you are just to get along, and yet, at its heart, it remains an abundantly hopeful story. It's a story full of messy, true life. I’m so glad I read it.”
—Claire Oshetsky, author of Chouette
“Achingly evocative and thoroughly satisfying, Jennifer Savran Kelly’s Endpapers follows a genderqueer bookbinder through post-9/11 New York as she searches the city for answers about a long-hidden love letter and the outlines of her own identity. Part historical mystery, part meditation on the shifting nature of creativity and self, Endpapers is a story that bursts with warmth, community, and the sometimes-heartbreaking decisions we make when we begin to stitch together the spine of our lives."
—Katy Hays, author of The Cloisters
“Jennifer Savran Kelly’s Endpapers is an accomplished, moving novel where the search for answers to a literary mystery doubles as the search for queer authenticity in a world of bindings: book bindings, artistic bindings, social bindings. With humor, tenderness, and honesty, Savran Kelly lays bare the struggle to find our brilliant, beautiful selves—and the courage to go forth boldly with them.”
—Zak Salih, author of Let’s Get Back to the Party
“…the mystery of Gertrude and Marta converges beautifully with the art-work that Dawn begins to conceive. Kelly is a bookbinder and book production editor, and the novel’s details of book and print restoration ground and add depth to Dawn’s story.”
- “A dizzying, intimate mystery, an exploration of how we become engrossed in the stories of others in order to tell ones of ourselves.”—Electric Literature
- “It’s thoughtful and nuanced and full of gender exploration we rarely get to see…”—LGBTQ Reads
- On Sale
- Feb 7, 2023
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Algonquin Books