Critical Overview

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Reviews for the novel have been decidedly positive. Many critics praise Eugenides's characterization of Cal. Max Watman, in New Criterion, writes that in this "first-rate" novel, "Eugenides normalizes the experience of a hermaphrodite and turns Cal into something other than a freak." James Wood, in the New Republic agrees, insisting, "Eugenides makes Calliope credible: she is not merely a theme." Joanne Wilkinson, in her review for Booklist, concludes that Eugenides "proves himself to be a wildly imaginative writer" and finds "perhaps what is most surprising about [his] offbeat but engrossing book is how he establishes, seemingly effortlessly, the credibility of his narrator." He is, she claims, "likely to hold readers in thrall" with "a sure yet light-handed touch" in his "affecting characterization of a brave and lonely soul and [his] vivid depiction of exactly what it means to be both male and female." In her review of the novel in the Library Journal, Rachel Collins concurs: "The author's eloquent writing captures the essence of Cal."

Praising the tone and style of the novel, Collins argues, "his confidence in the story, combined with his sure prose, helps readers overcome their initial surprise and focus on the emotional revelation of the characters and beyond." She concludes, "Eugenides proves that he is not only a unique voice in modern literature but also well versed in the nature of the human heart." A review in Publishers Weekly echoes Collins's claims, declaring the novel "beautifully written" with an "extraordinary sensitivity to the mores of our leafier suburbs" as it "effortlessly transcend[s] the stereotypes of gender."

Some readers, however, have found fault with the narrative. Wilkinson insists that "at times the novel reads like a medical text." Wood writes that the "novel is blemished by elements of didacticism and prolixity, and [Eugenides] is not without the postmodern urge to turn clouds of suggestion into storms of fact." He also criticizes Eugenides tendency to "[remind] us just how neatly he has planted everything."

Yet Wood finds much also to praise in the novel's voice and tone: "[the novel] is an often affecting, funny, and deeply human book. For all its scope and its size, for all the data that crowds this novel, Eugenides seems a charmingly ingenuous writer." Woods praises the "verve" and the "exactness" of the author's storytelling skills and his "simple confidence in his Greek material that disarms his vices." Wood concludes, "The result is … a descriptive immediacy, vividly comic, often precisely realistic, but with that tilt of the real the narrative needs." Ultimately, "Eugenides's charm, his life-jammed comedy, rescues the novel from its occasional didacticism." Wood adds, "Paradoxically, Eugenides's boldness, his decision to risk an emblem as obvious as a hermaphrodite narrator … is what steers the novel away, finally, from the temptation of editorial writing."

Wood reserves his highest praise for Eugenides's dual narrative structure, claiming that he has "accomplished one of the most difficult novelistic tricks" by combining "an adult voice using the full resources of the language and the proper prestiges of adulthood" with "a child's voice, representing an excited, receptive, and bolting response to the world." He concludes, "In our day, this achievement of a mature uncorruptedness represents something of a triumph."

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