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Intergenerational saga; historical fiction
Point of View
Cal narrates the novel, focusing primarily on the thoughts and feelings of his paternal grandparents (Lefty and Desdemona) and his parents (Milton and Tessie) up until his birth. In narrating the events before his birth, Cal narrates omnisciently, knowing everything the characters are thinking and feeling and offering commentary on why they act the way they do in a way that appears objective and true. After his birth, Cal maintains some of this understanding but focuses more on himself. Although he’s self-reflective, he’s also subjective, unable to maintain an unbiased view, particularly when describing his present life in Berlin.
Although Cal adopts some of the language of the Greek epic poet Homer to frame his story, he undercuts the lofty language with a self-conscious and wry sense of humor. Even during difficult scenes, he takes an ironic tone or injects fond humor, as if keeping himself from getting too close to the intense feelings.
Smyrna, Asia Minor; Berlin, Germany; Detroit, Michigan; New York City, New York; San Francisco, California
Cal (formerly Calliope) Stephanides
Cal Stephanides, born Calliope (Callie), struggles to come to terms with himself as an intersex man.
Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides fall in love and marry. They survive the burning of Smyrna and immigrate to Detroit. Milton and Tessie are born and later marry. Callie is born with a recessive genetic mutation because of incest and intermarriage in her family. As Callie approaches puberty, she notices that she’s developing differently than other girls her age. Callie develops a crush on another girl at school, known as the Object. When she goes to the Object’s family’s summer home, Callie and the Object begin a physical relationship. The Object’s brother chases Callie, and Callie runs into a moving tractor. The doctors discover that Callie appears to have a penis, causing Callie’s parents to bring her to a specialist.
Callie reads her case file in Dr. Luce’s office and realizes that she is biologically a boy.
Deciding to call himself Cal, he runs away to San Francisco, where he works at a peep show that showcases people who fall outside the gender binary. Milton dies in a car chase, and Cal returns home for the funeral. Desdemona reveals the truth of her relationship with Lefty.
Because Cal is writing a family and personal history that he already knows, he foreshadows events routinely, sometimes through direct reference, such as when he mentions the Object in Chapter 1, long before she enters the narrative. The past events of Cal’s family history also foreshadow events of his own life, such as when Jimmy Zizmo hides his identity, as Cal will do.