I’ll be honest, the title for this post is a bit of a stretch. And the buzz around this book is too.
The first part is dead-on. It is an epic tale of the complexities of families that stretches three generations and the Atlantic Ocean. But the gender part of it, the part about the hermaphrodite, the part that was the only thing I’ve ever heard about this book, REALLY ISN’T THAT BIG A DEAL.
Let me start over. Yes. The book begins with the hot topic. In fact, the opening lines make you think you know exactly what the story is going to be about:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petroskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
And gender confusions.
There is definitely intrigue and mystery laced throughout the tale–one of the things I find enchanting about the book– and while the question of gender does come up now and then, it doesn’t really hit till the last few chapters. Really, most of it is about identity and the complications added to self-identification by immigration, family history, and (yes, finally) gender. Cal (once Calliope) is our narrator, and he directs us through his family’s history starting with his Greek grandparents in Smyrna (in Asia-minor…which is approximately Turkey… I think…) who evacuate their burning village to America.
But TWIST: The whole time Cal describes this situation in Smyrna, he refers to brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona…but the readers know that these are also the names of Cal’s paternal grandparents. Hmm….
And then we hear the story of Milton (Lefty and Desdemona’s son) and Tessie (L&D’s cousin’s daughter). Second cousins (Or is it first cousins once removed? I always get those confused). Who fall in love via the clarinet.
And finally we get the story of Calliope. Who finds herself different from other girls… flat-chested, tall, gangly, period-less, hairs on her upper lip, strong desire to touch her best friend’s stomach… And although she doesn’t know this at the time, the reader knows that her genitalia aren’t quite… female.
So yes. The book is about how the main character is a hermaphrodite due to his family’s strange, interrelated sexual history. But is the story really about gender? No. The story is really about how our identities are shaped by the actions and decisions of our parents and grandparents, by the social upheavals of the time, and most of all, by how we choose to define ourselves.
It’s a thick one, and it lost me for a bit in the second half, but stick with it for one final twist near the end.