September 23, 2002 12:00 PM

By Jeffrey Eugenides

Holden Caulfield thought he had issues. For Cal Stephanides, the passage into manhood is even more distressing because he lived as a girl named Callie until age 14. “Some people inherit houses,” Cal says. “I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed.”

In this daring and inventive second novel from the author of 1993’s The Virgin Suicides, Cal recounts the twists of fate and quirks of biology that made him a hermaphrodite. An epic with shades of myth and tragedy begins when a brother and sister flee the Turkish invasion of Asia Minor in the 1920s and arrive in America as husband and wife. They are Cal’s grandparents.

It’s sensational stuff, but Eugenides brings a sophisticated touch, taking his time with an intricate 400 pages or so of bizarre family history building up to Callie’s discovery of her condition. The conclusion, though, feels rushed: When Callie runs away from home and eventually returns as Cal, family members react as though their daughter were trying out a shocking new hair color. Still, this feast of a novel is thrilling in the scope of its imagination and surprising in its tenderness. Cal is one of recent fiction’s most endearing characters. (Farrar Straus Giroux, $27)

Bottom Line: A gender-bending jewel

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