Jeffrey Eugenides

Read January-February 2007

Surely this is a novel about an English county? I'm not giving anything away by telling you it's not: the first page makes pointedly clear, and the next few hundred reinforce, that it's about hermaphrodites. Every group deserves its novel, its epic even, and this one is theirs. Interwoven is a story about the Greek diaspora of the 20th century.

The first thing you notice, and then keep noticing, is that Eugenides is very clever at prose. There are little jokes, small puns, verbal jousts of all kinds, sprinkled liberally. Written in the first-person internal voice, the narrator Calliope/Cal is simultaneously sophisticated and uncertain, fragile. And the story has enough twists and weaves to be satisfying even as, like a good mystery writer, Eugenides keeps dropping little hints as to what is about to happen, just enough to grab your attention and want to keep reading on. As craft, it's very, very good, not to mention the remarkable exploration of a traditionally hidden sexual identity (even as Eugenides reminds us that a whole percentage of Americans are hermaphrodites).

And yet, there is something about the smirky cleverness of the book that keeps it from being truly great. Isn't it intentional that the visual self-portrait Cal gives us acutely resembles the author's photograph on the back cover? Why Calliope/Cal as opposed to Artemesia/Art or Penelope/Pen—ah, yes, we're supposed to think Cal for California, land of opportunity, change, ambiguity and the new. The Greek dimension is strong and yet sappy enough in its own right that this could have been called My Big Fat Greek Novel. And should we ponder whether the authors' obsession with good genes has something to do with his name? See where this kind of writing leads?