I just put down the Pulitzer Prize winning fictional tale of 2003 and can understand why it won. I haven’t read any of Jeffrey Eugenides novels before and picked this up about 10 years ago. It is essentially a story within a story. An existential expository (that rhymes!). What I mean is you already know at the beginning of the book what the story is about–that the protagonist is a hermaphrodite or intersex. One of the first sentences of the book sums up the story exquisitely: “An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into myth; I’ve left my body in order to occupy others-and all this happened before I turned sixteen.” You’ll know what that line means once you finish the novel.
It goes on to tell the story of the genetic map that traveled through an inbred family. Calliope, or Cal as the name he later adopts when he identifies with his biological gender, is Greek. His grandparents were raised on Mount Olympus during the Turkish-Greco wars in the 1920s and orphaned due to this event. They were also siblings and keep this secret when they escape the burning city to Detroit where their first cousin lives. Once there they settle into an American lifestyle as best they can and soon bear children. Desdemona, Calliope’s yia yia, learns from their doctor friend that incestuous relationships often yield children with genetic mutations. She continually worries for her offspring while counting her worry beads. Eventually their son Milton woos and marries his second cousin Tessie and they marry. They have two children, Chapter Eleven (nicknamed for bankrupting the family) and Calliope. The story follows their upbringing, romance and subsequent family dynamics. It also explores topics that are still relevant today including the Detroit race riots of 1967, Malcolm X and the rise of the Nation of Islam, and the confusing transition from 1960s Americana to 1970s rationing.
This converges with Calliope’s story. She is so smart. And curious. And normal. From here she learns about being a girl and what it’s like to struggle with adolescence and puberty, or in her case, lack thereof. In ways I identified with her when she encountered the locker room in junior high with her failing biology and underdevelopment. How she wet her hair in the water fountain to feign showering all to avoid being naked in front of her peers whom exhibited more ample femininity. She struggles to learn about desire because it seems so natural but socially unacceptable. She explores what gender means to her once faced with the reality of not being who she has always been…but has.