I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and her truly unique family secret, born on the slopes of Mount Olympus and passed on through three generations.
Growing up in 70s Michigan, Calliope’s special inheritance will turn her into Cal, the narrator of this intersex, inter-generational epic of immigrant life in 20th century America.
This book serves as a delicious mixture of the intimate and the epic. There is the sweep of history, and it’s made intimate by the lives and the passions of the characters. There is a rich and compelling humanity on display here. There are no villains twirling mustaches, but simply people and their secrets, those that they keep from others and those that they keep from themselves.
Cal, the narrator, takes us back in time and intersperses those stories with his own experiences. He captures the poignancy of life lived as someone who is borne outside of gender norms, but it is not something that you are bludgeoned over the head with. Eugenides draws upon a disparate and dizzying array of influences and events to bring this book to life. I found myself involved from the start, and the deeper I got into the book, the more complete it’s hold over me became. There is life, death, sex, rioting, incest, blackmail, food, mythology, egotism, hubris and history all within these pages.
I loved this book, it’s depth and power do not undermine it’s entertainment value, they enhance it. The prose is exquisite, the insights that come from each development are startling and for all of it’s weighty matter, it’s warm and funny with it too. You grow to love these people as Cal loves them and I loved Cal, for his integrity, his willingness to pursue and be himself. It’s a story that has dead ends and incomplete events but it serves to add to the reality of the story.
The trick with literature that wins prizes isn’t that it’s pretentious, it’s just not simple and clean cut. It’s humane and expansive, it teaches you about how people are, not as you would wish them to be. Some of it is pretentious, but even then you’ll learn something from it that makes for an interesting conversation, stops you being an asshole in person or online (okay less of an asshole) but still it’s a really good book and I think you should read it.