New to the world of Jeffrey Eugenides, I turned to this book that was recently recommended to me. Its premise seemed not only intriguing, but an essential topic in this day and age of rebranding and gender fluidity. A story that takes the reader on an adventure like no other, I was hooked from the opening pages until I turned to pen this review. Calliope Helen Stephanides was born twice, once in 1960 and again in 1974. Such a bold statement to open the novel, though one that will make sense at a later point. After some housekeeping introductory narrative, Eugenides takes the story back to 1921, in what might now be called Turkey. There, Desdemona Stephanides is growing up as the country is at war. She idolizes her brother, Lefty, who is also a distant cousin by some odd coincidence. As the fighting heats up, they flee the country for America, where a distant cousin awaits them. After fudging the truth a little, both Desdemona and Lefty made it aboard a ship. They pretend not to know one another and end up falling in love and marrying. They try to use their long bloodlines to dispel some of the less than savoury aspects of this. When they arrive in America, they are shuttled off to Detroit, where the story gets richer as they live with family who have secrets of their own. Married in the eyes of the law, Desdemona and Lefty embrace the American way, without losing their Greek heritage. Eugenides spins quite the tale from there, as they have children—genetic abnormality-free—an try to provide as best they can. As the story progresses, their offspring begin to lay roots of their own, with new and exciting twists to the genetic situation. By 1960, young Calliope Stephanides is born and the oddity of her birth is missed by many. Calliope adopts the name Callie and progresses through life as a typical girl of the time, doing everything that is expected of her, at least until her early teens, when everyone around her seems to be changing. Callie cannot understand, yet there is a feeling of difference that exceeds being a late bloomer. Callie has her own life adventures, which eventually leads to a trip to the doctor. This begins even more appointments, as far away as NYC. There, it is discovered that Callie was born a hermaphrodite, with genetically male leanings. A syndrome passed along from generation to generation, Callie no longer simply feels like an outsider, but a complete stranger. Social and biological expectations rear up and the family must decide how to cope and what ought to be done. Callie seems ready to take the lead, but feels a need to ostracize from the others, if only to protect them. As the story reaches its climax, Eugenides takes Callie through 1970s America and the place gender and sexuality play in shaping the young person. With flash forwards throughout of “Cal”, an established career civil servant for the US Government in Europe, the reader can see how the protagonist landed in their feet, though there is much to tell before that point. A powerful book at every turn of the page, Jeffrey Eugenides packs so much into this piece. Recommended to those who are open-minded enough to read and enjoy discussion of the roles sex and gender have on society, as well as the reader who wants something impactful and told in a multi-generational format.
I knew only what the dust jacket covered offered when I began this book, but was so enthralled that I could not put it down. I have chosen to remain very vague in the summary section above, as it is the numerous reveals that occur there that make the story for me. Jeffrey Eugenides tells a story of a Greek family’s setting up roots in America, as they struggle to come to terms with the culture shock. Woven into the piece is the foreboding—though unknown to them—of the coming birth of Calliope, who symbolizes all the choices that were made over the decades. The story is so rich and uses a number of key characters that I cannot automatically turn to a single protagonist. The brilliance of the storytelling brought each story to light and tied things together in a masterful manner. Pushing the norms of the time (and now), Eugenides tells a tale that needs to be explored, if only to take the veiled secrecy from around it. There is so much within the pages of this book that tackles so many issues, I cannot hone in on one that is the most important. The dedicated reader will find a theme all their own and stick to it, dazzled throughout as Eugenides paints many an image. The writing was smooth and flowed effortlessly as the story spun in many directions. Eugenides seeks to shock, then lulls the reader into a degree of comfort by not scandalising things. I cannot say enough about this book and hope others I know who have not taken the time to read this do so, if only to challenge their notions of right and wrong, normal and outlandish, or expected and shocking. I know I will be back for more of Eugenides’ books, when time permits.
Kudos, Mr. Eugenides, for such a sobering tale. I cannot even begin to thank you for opening my eyes and mind to so very much!
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons