In this issue:
Jeffrey Eugenides' well-earned Pulitzer prize winner, Middlesex, is in paperback, a Julia Sneden review; Jody Bush reviews Jo Freeman's personal story of a passionately involved young Cal student in At Berkeley in the 60s; the Education of an Activist; Thomas Mallon's Bandbox is a snappy, stylish look at the hard-drinking, wise-cracking staff of a magazine
By Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002
Picador Books, a division of Farrar Straus&Giroux
paperback; 529 pp
Jeffrey Eugenides received a well-earned Pulitzer Prize for this narrative novel. It is told in the voice of Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite designated female at birth and given the name Calliope. Raised as a girl, at puberty Calliope begins to have doubts and questions about her feelings and sexuality. Eventually, events conspire to force a medical evaluation, after which she comes out as he: Cal, not Calliope.
These bald facts of the story may sound sensational. The author’s skill makes them not only understandable, but amusing and at times heart-rending. The tale begins with the Stephanides grandparents, who emigrated from Greece, landing in Detroit during the Prohibition Era of the ‘20’s. We learn right from the beginning that the young immigrant couple is an incestuous union of brother and sister passing as husband and wife, a secret unknown to their descendants until the very end of the book. The burden of guilt produced by their union weighs heavily on Cal’s “yia yia” (grandmother). It seems not to distress his grandfather, a charismatic character and ultimate pragmatist.
As the family proceeds through several decades of American history (the Depression, World War II, the race riots in Detroit in the ‘60’s), we observe its classic rise from immigration to assimilation. It is a family with strong Greek roots, filled with wonderfully rich characters and events that flesh out the story most satisfactorily.
It is the author’s genius to render understandable and sympathetic not only the incest, but also deep questions about sexuality. Questions of which is stronger, chromosomes or culture (Calliope has a y chromosome, making her male, but she was reared as a girl) are explored and largely left open-ended despite Cal’s later decision to live as a man.
Withal, this coming-of-age story is as lively a read as you will find, and Cal/Calliope is every bit a captivating character. The Pulitzer Prize committee was right on the mark.
— Julia Sneden
Julia Sneden is a writer, teacher, wife, mother, grandmother and care-giver. She lives in North Carolina. She can be reached by email.