I normally summarize a book myself before reviewing but there was just so much here I am going to start with the synopsis from Amazon:
“In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides, a student at a girls' school in Grosse Pointe, finds herself drawn to a chain-smoking, strawberry blond classmate with a gift for acting. The passion that furtively develops between them--along with Callie's failure to develop--leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. In fact, she is not really a girl at all.The explanation for this shocking state of affairs takes us out of suburbia- back before the Detroit race riots of 1967, before the rise of the Motor City and Prohibition, to 1922, when the Turks sacked Smyrna and Callie's grandparents fled for their lives. Back to a tiny village in Asia Minor where two lovers, and one rare genetic mutation, set in motion the metamorphosis that will turn Callie into a being both mythical and perfectly real: a hermaphrodite.Spanning eight decades--and one unusually awkward adolescence- Jeffrey Eugenides's long-awaited second novel is a grand, utterly original fable of crossed bloodlines, the intricacies of gender, and the deep, untidy promptings of desire. It marks the fulfillment of a huge talent, named one of America's best young novelists by both Granta and The New Yorker.”
Gathering my thoughts together about this novel has taken me several days. Obviously Calliope Stephanides is no ordinary girl. Eugenides surrounds the reason for this with 80 years of history and an intimate look at the Stephanides family. Calliope, our plucky narrator for the journey, relates the events to us in a matter of fact and relatable way. The story of the family itself and how her grandparents fled from Smyrna to start life anew in Detroit and were involved in all sorts of interesting endeavors (liquor runners during the prohibition, silk worker for the nation of Islam, military men, a hippy, and the family business) is just as interesting as Calliope and the confusion she experiences growing up.
You really feel for Callie-hiding in the back of the locker room so no one sees her, constantly wondering why her body is not changing like others her age and then finally discovering why she is different, being treated like a science experiment by the doctors and ultimately deciding how she is going to live her life. Eugenides doesn’t use Callie’s being a hermaphrodite as shock factor. He just spins the story around her and lets her experiences speak for themselves which makes it so much easier to connect with her.
Of course I am a little biased in this being a native of the state but I really enjoyed that the majority of the book was set in and around the Detroit area. Seeing Detroit before it was Motown and experiencing it right on through the race riots of the 60’s and the turbulent 70’s was enjoyable for me.
There were a few issues I had with the book though. I cannot quite put my finger on why but this book took me about 100 or so pages to get into. It’s not that I was bored with the story or anything like that. The narration and Callie’s grandparent’s escape from Smyrna were interesting but it just didn’t click with me right away. Personally, I am glad I stuck with it but I think many would have tossed it aside before they got to the point where it really picks up. Also when Callie is going through her crush on her friend she has her first sexual experience with her friend’s brother. This is the first time she’s ever had someone pursue her like that and she gives in without much fuss? I hate that the author would use the “I was drinking and doing drugs” angle as the excuse for this happening. I heard that enough from certain friends in high school. I thought it was crap then. I still think its crap now. I do not see someone who is so self conscious about their body having sex with the first boy who pays attention to her. Despite those few hang ups I had it was an interesting story. I like this author’s writing style and the quirky characters he creates. I think I will definitely be giving his first book The Virgin Suicides a try at some point. I hope it’s as good as this one was.