Genre: literary fiction
Length: 529 pages
Setting: Turkey in 1922 to Detroit in 1975 to Germany in the present
Interest: It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Summary: We follow several timelines of the Stephanides family history, interspersed with each other. First, there’s the story of Lefty and Desdemona. They emigrated from Turkey after the burning of Smyrna and got married when they came to the U.S., even though they were brother and sister. They lived through Prohibition in Detroit with cousins, running a speakeasy in the basement. One of their kids, Milton, marries his cousin Tessie. They stay in Detroit with Milton running a neighborhood diner before starting a hot dog franchise. It is their second child, Calliope/Cal, who narrates the story. Turns out she inherited a genetic mutation that leads to hermaphroditic characteristics. She grows up treated as a girl and it’s not until puberty that her family realizes something is different about her. She goes to a specialist who proposes surgery to physically turn her into a girl. Instead, Calliope runs away to San Fransisco and turns into Cal. The narrator is Cal as an adult, dealing with his indeterminate sexual status.
Final thoughts: An interesting book that’s all about culture clash. The continual culture class of traditional Greek culture with the changing American culture, with an added twist of transgendered culture thrown in. It’s not a book for kids, since there are some sex scenes and lots of discussions of genitalia. Nothing too graphic, but still more for a mature audience.
The book really immersed me in the story of the Stephanides family. I enjoyed learning about the three generations, each with their own secrets, but those secrets were not treated shamefully. You really got a feel for the changing culture from traditional Greek, with the men and the women having very definite roles, through Prohibition and rum-running, to the race riots in Detroit, to the queer/transgendered culture in San Fransisco. We also experience all the heartache of puberty, with the added difficulty of actually being different and not just feeling different.
Title comes from: I had thought it came from the fact that Cal was a hermaphrodite (genetically male but didn’t produce all the male hormones so looked partially female), but it was also the name of the house Cal and Chapter Eleven (his/her brother, who we never learn if that’s his nickname or his real name) grew up in.
Awards won: 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction
Reading challenges fulfilled: 34/100 in the Read-a-Latte Challenge, 5/12 in the Award Winning Book Challenge updated to add an X in A-Z Reading Challenge (which takes me to 19/26) totally forgot the x at the end of this title would count for my X slot!