Written by the author of The Virgin Suices, this book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. As with most contemporary and literary fiction, the time frame jumps around, the point of views shifts, and the subject matter is deep. However, in this case, I found many of these literary devices seemless and intimately tied to the narrative and meaning of the story.
Calliope is the narrator of the story, and she begins by telling us that she was “born twice”—first as a baby girl, and then as a teenage boy. As the story unfolds, we learn the reason for this: she was a hermaphrodite. Much of the first half of the novel is spent in the past, narrating gone lives of her Greek grandparents, noting their lives but also the fluke of genetics that would lead to her/his biological anomaly—the marriage of this brother and sister as they fled Greece and the Turkish attack on Smyrna. Through their lives we read of their time in Detroit during Prohibition, the lives of their children, and their lives in Detroit during the Race Riots—eventually leading to the birth of Callie. Of course, much of this has nothing to do with Calliopse’s condition, it is an interesting and historical look into those cultures and the lives of the fictional people within them.
In between, we are treated to brief snippets of the male Callie’s life, just moments here and there of the difficulties of navigating life as a male after growing up as a female. But the latter part of the book turns to Callie’s life as a child and then an adolescent. Much of her life is the stuff of growing up: learning to relate with friends, parents, and others; the awkwardness and exploration of puberty and teenage years. Of course, Calliope’s coming-of-age story is different because of her condition, unknown to her and her parents until she reached the age of 15 and it became clear something was wrong. The rest of the story pours forth: doctors, family strife, fear, denial and acceptance, and an exploration of what it means to be a male after having been raised a female. I won’t spoil the book by going further.
The books covers eight decades of a family line, delves into gender confusion, sexual desires, and the search for one’s place in the world. While gender fluidity and transgender are hot topics of discussion today, Eugenides avoids any social or political commentary, and merely tells the story of a genetic anomaly (perhaps some might read the few references to “a new humanity” as commentary). Instead, the story invites us to think about a imperfect world, which includes an imperfect biology. It asks us to think about what it means to be “different,” especially when different is a rarity.
It is an imaginative book, pulling from Greek history, mythology, genetic science, and American history. The style is quite readable and avoids the often confusing experimention of much contemporary literary novels. Stunning, perhaps, is the ability of Eugenides to write as a first-person female and seeming to do it with ease (though I should perhaps leave that to female readers). Parts of it may make some readers feel prurient, and some might think the graphic descriptions are unnecessary. One could argue those sections are necessary because of the subject of the book, and that Eugenides keeps to fairly clinical descriptions, but it might make some readers uncomfortable.
It is easy to see why this book won the Pulitzer Prize. If you are ready for the scope, length, and subject matter of the book, you will probably enjoy it.
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