“Hi, I’m a hermaphrodite, but wait, I want to tell you about the story of my family....” If Eugenides were any less of a capable writer, this tactic would have driven me to distraction as it has in lesser books. Instead, his stories about grandparents growing up in Greece, fleeing the invaders, moving to Detroit and raising a family, becomes such a delightful diversion [and, in fact, the bulk of the story] that you can almost forget that you’ve been tantalized by a really juicy bit of information. It’s tough to not write a tawdry tale when you’re talking about sex and gender issues. The questions in the reader’s minds such as “What does his/her THING look like?” or “How does he/she have sex?” must be addressed in some fashion but they need not be the focal point of an otherwise engrossing story.
In fact, the bomb drops for most people before they even pick up this book. It’s popular enough that most people know it’s got a hermaphrodite character even before they pick it up. For some, this keeps them from picking up the book at all, as in the case of my landlady’s elderly friend who said flat out “I don’t like reading books about sex” and would not be persuaded to pick it up. It’s really a story about family, and a story about identity and how you know who you are. This is repeated over and over, when people move from one country to another, from one family alignment to another, from one social class to another or from one gender to another. While the narrator is, at the present time, a man in his 40’s, most of the story revolves around that tricky time when he went from being a girl, to being a teenaged.... teenager. Gender issues are only part of the problem with growing older, the story seems to say to us, and with lovely language Eugenides spells out many of the other problems.