Genre: LGBT, Family, History, Bildungsroman
Narrative Style: First person, non-chronological
Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre Over 500 pages.
This has been on my list for a long time so when it came up for £0.99 on my Kindle, I jumped at it. I’m not really sure what I expected from it (I’d read The Virgin Suicides and had been suitably weirded out by the tone and subject matter) but the story of Calliope / Cal wasn’t it. That isn’t a criticism. I couldn’t have possibly imagined anything as wildly exciting and interesting as the novel actually is.
The story actually starts long before Cal’s birth, on a completely different continent. Admittedly, I know very little about recent Greek history but the details supplied by Eugenides seemed to make sense. And as ever, with really evocative writing, it made me want to find out more. The boat trip to America and the treatment by the American authorities were also emotionally described and I really felt for Lefty and Desdemona (Cal’s grandparents).
Although this novel is described as being about Cal’s transformation from Calliope to Cal, it is a long time before we actually get to this part of the story. Hints are dropped and events alluded to but the main story moves through Cal’s grandparents to parents and then to the present day in order to explain the presence of the genetic mutation that causes all of Cal’s biological problems. There was no sense of impatience on my part though. No detail felt superfluous. The beginning of the novel in particular is a story beautifully told.
Later, it becomes more sensational and a little like a bad TV movie at times. Cal’s hermaphroditism is eventually discovered and he is taken to a doctor who is excited by the possibility of such an exciting case study. Cal is displayed and photographed in a way that seems just as seedy as later on when Cal has run away and ends up in a freak show with other transsexuals at various stages of transition. There is a certain element of magical realism in this part of the novel as Cal tries to come to terms with a new identity. It reminded me of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus when Fevvers lives with other freaks such as Sleeping Beauty.
What was pleasing was that Eugenides doesn’t make it straightforward for Cal who feels there is nowhere that he fit. Not male fully or female, not able to fit in with the intersex community, Cal was a little lost. In the present of the novel, Cal is working through a possible romance. Having revealed the entirety of his family history, he was ready at the end, to reveal his body to his lover. It felt like the right place to leave the story with the future possibilities wide open.