"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton
This is where I chronicle my reading life. I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.
I haven't read a "family epic" since The Thornbirds back in college, and this one is of a very different ilk.
The idea of an intersex narrator interested me, a holdover from my earlier fixation on all things GLTBQ. If that is the main point of interest for other readers, I think it would be easy to be frustrated by how much time the author spends on the narrator's ancestors' stories. Luckily, I was willing to sit back and let the story unfold at its own pace. Although there the story of his own parents was strangely slim after the involved treatment given to his grandparents, their story was decidedly less interesting and perhaps suffered something similar to "second-book" syndrome in the "trilogy" of Cal's grandparents, his parents, and finally his own story.
The narrative voice is probably what sets this book apart more than anything. I love that Cal is a complete person, not defined by his unusual genotype, and that he doesn't fit easily into stereotypes. He decides to ultimately live his life as a man, mostly because of his attraction to women. But he never felt "out of place" as a girl -- which is how his parents' raised him -- flying in the face of the "typical" transgender narrative that involves a feeling of being "out of place" in one's body. More than being a book about gender or sexuality, this is a book about the ties that bind family through generations, the stories, patterns, and psychoses that bind us over time. Cal narrates his family history with an odd mixture of distance and affection, at times relating events in excruciating detail, other times glossing over years or even decades in a couple sentences. Despite its length, this is not an epic in which one must make a chart to keep track of characters and relationships -- its surprisingly insulated, and the narrative never drifts too far from home.
One does have to suspend her disbelief a bit to let the narrative voice wash over her. The story is told first-person, yet Cal claims to have an almost mystical insight into things that happened before his own birth and things that happened while he was not privy to them. One can interpret this however one will -- I personally had trouble "buying" the magical realism angle and instead thought of Cal as taking artistic license as he imagined the way his family story may have unfolded in the moments that he was not in it.
The book is set up as a memoir, although it is actually a novel, which sort of made me wish it really WAS a memoir. One doesn't often encounter an "epic" memoir!
Before this, I have heard both from people who adored this book and those who were disappointed in it. Although objectively I can see that it's a masterful work of literature with an often-ignored perspective that remains, nonetheless, universal, my own opinion of it falls somewhere in between extremes.