Cal Stephanides, third generation Greek-American, spent the first 16 years of his life as Calliope, dressing and behaving as a girl. Misidentified at birth due to ambiguous genitalia, Calliope obsesses that she is not developing like she should. When her condition is finally discovered, tests conclude that she is really a male. The deviant chromosome that caused Cal to be born a hermaphrodite is traced back to his grandparents’ village in Asia Minor, which is where the saga begins. When the Turks invade their tranquil mountain, his grandparents are forced to abandon their silk farm and flee to a cousin’s home in Detroit, Michigan. There his colorful family becomes a part of Detroit’s growing Greek community.
Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides, deftly juxtaposes the history of Cal’s genetic mutation with his present struggle with his physical abnormality. The story is as much about Detroit’s Greek community as it is about Cal’s gender confusion. The antics of his extended family, the evolution of his family’s business ventures, and the historic events that influenced Detroit’s development are all presented in a humorous yet poignant way. Sprinkled throughout are clever observations such as the theory that Americans prefer their Presidents to have no more than two vowels and two syllables in their last names, explaining Dukakis’ 1988 defeat to Bush.
This is a coming-of-age story combined with a healthy dose of Detroit history. The quirky characters, ingenious plot, and Eugenides’ exemplary writing style make this book delightfully original.