This is a book about transition.
Transition from child to adult to parent and grandparent, from native to immigrant from brother and sister to husband and wife, from belief to unbelief, from rescued to rescuer, from moral probity to corruption and crime and one character transitions from female to male.
The last of those is the book’s USP, but don’t let that fool you: The introduction had me thinking the focus of this novel would be on Callie / Cal’s confused gender identity. It would be wrong to say that it isn’t. However, that forms only a part of the entire story here. To me, that was a major drawback in itself: a mismatch between what I expected the novel to be about, and what it actually did span.
The novel moves back and forth in time to narrate the history of Callie’s entire family. It starts from her grandparents’ story, meanders through her parents’ story, while sprinkling bits of her own growing years into the spaces of these stories. It is an unusual story, but with universal themes, told by a wonderfully engaging, lyrical, narrator
The family originally raised silkworms, so metamorphosis and long threads are at the heart of their lives as well as the story.
No fear of spoilers: the key aspects are summarized in the opening paragraphs, starting with: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl… and then again, as a teenage boy.” The rest of the book brings two aspects together: Cal’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, fleeing the Turks in 1922 as siblings, and arriving in the US as husband and wife, and how that meant Cal ended up with a recessive intersex condition, and is now telling his story.
In many respects, it is a conventional sweeping family drama, of the ups and downs of the American Dream: building (and rebuilding) businesses against the backdrop of the Vietnam war and civil rights movement, but with an extra dose of teen angst about puberty (or lack thereof).
The entire narrative is from the eyes of Callie, as she / he tells the story of others’ lives as if she was there when it happened.
Now, having been curious to see the world through the eyes of an “intersexual”, this should have been interesting. But the protagonist’s sex is pretty inconsequential when the story unfolding is that of their parents or grandparents.
There are echoes of Greek mythology throughout, which gives a certain weight and tone to how Cal tells it. There are very few passages where Callie’s gender plays any role at all.
Callie (or later, Cal) identifies with being a male, despite her being raised a girl for the first fourteen years of her life. In this context, it is interesting to see the contrast of her feelings to certain situations; how she is unable to fully bridge over to either side. There is a bit of both sexes in her , manifesting itself in the way she thinks, feels and emotes. In a larger sense, this is true of most human beings, irrespective of their Biology. This is the beauty about that coexistence of sexes, of opposites, within the same individual.
There is relatively little about Cal’s adaptation to living as a man (though there is a sweet sideline in learning how to date women, the perils of what to tell them when etc). Most of the story leads up to that realization: the agonies of not developing when her friends do, then growing oddly tall and awkward, struggling with infatuation with girls etc.
It is incest that causes Cal’s condition, but there is no resentment in the telling of the story, perhaps because it’s not just Desdemona and Lefty. Other cousins married each other (Cal’s parents are cousins, conceived on the same day, who grew up together), and even some couples who are not related by blood have a rather incestuous aspect:
Like I said, more focus on Callie’s own story, own life would’ve been of more interest to me. Instead, this novel needs to be read with a clear understanding that this is but a piece of the jigsaw.
Overall, an interesting book, especially because of the theme, it loses momentum frequently in several of the flashbacks.