Thursday, April 12, 2018
Published September 2002 by Knopf Canada
Read by Kristoffer Tabori
Source: my audiobook purchased at my local library book sale; I also have a physical copy, the origins of which I don't recall
In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides finds herself drawn to a classmate at her girls' school in Grosse Point, Michigan. That passion -- along with her failure to develop -- leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. The explanation for this is a rare genetic mutation -- and a guilty secret -- that have followed Callie's grandparents from the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Prohibition-era Detroit and beyond, outlasting the glory days of the Motor City, the race riots of 1967, and the family's second migration, into the foreign country known as suburbia. Thanks to the gene, Callie is part girl, part boy. And even though the gene's epic travels have ended, her own odyssey has only begun.
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl...in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy...in August of 1974."
Once upon a time, I suppose I had some inkling what this book was about. Then I forgot. I just knew that it was a book that people raved about. So I bought it. Twice. Then, shortly after I bought the audiobook, I read somewhere that it was the first popular book with a hermaphrodite as its main character; and, I'm ashamed to say, I moved it to the bottom of the pile. And then I listened to podcasts instead of popping in the first disc. I could not imagine 500 pages about a hermaphrodite that wasn't just sensationalized. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
If you've been reading my Sunday posts, or follow me on Instagram, Snapchat, or Litsy, you've been hearing me rave about this book for the past few weeks, "One of the best readings of a book I've ever listened to; Kristoffer Tabori is amazing,""just blown away by Eugenides writing. Why did I wait so long?!" When the end-of-the-year post goes up with my favorites for the year, it's going to be pretty tough to top this one as my favorite audiobook of the year.
But just how did I overcome my qualms about a book featuring an hermaphrodite? I'm not going to lie; some parts of the book made me a little uncomfortable. But, then I've been working the past couple of years to read more books that make me uncomfortable so I appreciate the ways that Eugenides made me learn about human sexuality. In the end, what he seems to be saying about all of that is that it is who we are inside that makes us who we are, not what we are on the outside.
But this book is about so much more than gender identity. It's a coming of age story that's also about war, passion, immigration and the immigrant experience, the rise and fall of a city, racial tensions, religion, nature versus nurture, societies, the American Dream, gender roles, and, most of all, it's about family. The characters in this book will stay with me for a long time: Lefty and Desdemona who escaped the great fire of Smyrna and pursued the American Dream while never leaving their Greek customs entirely behind; Jimmy Zizmo, who was married to their cousin and took them under his wing but who also exposed them to the seamier side of America; Milton, who worked hard to leave behind his Greek roots and become a big man with his Cadillacs and unusual house in the tony suburb of Gross Pointe; the aunts, uncles, and family friends who made up the Sunday dinner crowd. They all made Callie/Cal who she/he was as much by who they were as by genetics.
Does Eugenides sometimes get a little verbose? Oh, yeah, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness. But I'm willing to forgive all of that for the empathy, sadness, humor, and insight that he has imbued his story with. As I said when I was getting near the end, I'm going to miss this book.