” She began to watch her children closely . . . She kept waiting for something to happen, some disease, some abnormality, fearing that the punishment of her crime was going to be taken out in the most devastating way possible: not on her own soul but in the bodies of her children. ” [Part 2, 157]
Middlesex is a family saga that begins in Smyrna, a village in Asia Minor in 1922. Fleeing their home disguised as French nationals when war broke out between Greece and Turkey, Desdemona and Lefty boarded an America-bound ship on which they consummated their relationship, an incestuous one, for they were more than third cousins—they were brother and sister. In Detroit the Stephanides became assimilated into the American society. Both of their children, Milton and Zoe were healthy. They were raised during a period characterized by Prohibition and xenophobic anti-immigration legislation, making the American Dream a delusion that had already disappeared before they knew it.
Desdemona recalled her mother telling stories about strange infants born in the village. They came very few generations, babies who were sick in some way. Desdemona couldn’t remember how exactly—her mother had been vague. [Part 2, 117]
Biology is an inevitable tragedy waiting to happen. Desdemona and Left’s violation of an invincible taboo—consanguinity (inter-marrying)—manifests in the rarest form of deformity, in their grandchild. The narrator, Cal (Callie) Stephanides, is an intersexed man with a condition known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which causes him to be a hermophroditic. Cal was the victim of a mutated gene that finally struck after two generations. Raised as a girl (but with male brain and more male hormone), Cal viewed himself as a girl who liked other girls, until he discovered that he could have been raised as a boy. Taking great length to hide his body, one without period and developed breasts during puberty, he renounced his female gender and recognized his chosen sexual identity as a male.
From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn’t do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people inherit houses; others paintings or highly insured violin bows. Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed. [Part 4, 401]
Written in an ironic and sardonic tone, Middlesex reads like a memoir but with shifting perspectives. Genetic dissertations are often highlighted by the shift from first person to third person in the middle of the prose where Cal researches hermaphroditism. He also narrates in third person to dissociate, to detach himself from Callie when he discusses her. The novel at large is about a family’s migration from Greece and assimilation in America. As it progresses it shifts into a social novel about Detroit, incorporating Detroit race riot that granted the family a windfall after their diner burned down and discussing the seclusion of living in a 1970s suburb.
Milton, on the other hand, didn’t waste time reevaluating the evidence. On hotel stationery Callie had proclaimed, ‘I am not a girl.’ But Callie was just a kid. What did she know? Kids said all kinds of crazy things. My father didn’t understand what had made me flee my surgery. He couldn’t fathom why I wouldn’t want to be fixed, cured. [Part 4, 466]
The immigrant predicament is both a metaphor and a synecdoche for Callie’s hermaphroditic condition, because her grandparents become Americanized through amalgamation of elements of history, heredity, cultural metamorphoses, and probability. The Stephanides’s career through Depression, World War II, the cataclysmic Detroit Race Riot, the counterculture, and Watergate—they were all parts of Callie’s identity and story. Like the immigrant experience, Callie has to renounce her old self and adopts a new identity, one that is within reason. and is meant to be at birth. Middlesex is soundly constructed with motifs (Greek myths and allusions) and characters weaving through the novel’s various episodes. At the end, the notion of gender identity, which Eugenides subtly de-emphasizes by keeping the narrative voices of Callie and Cal unchanged, becomes so blank-slate, as the doctor strives to drag Cal under the knife to defend his theory of normality.
This novel, as lyrical as it is splendid, takes reader through a roller coaster of emotions. On top of human experiences marked by polar opposites, the novel ponders at life when it is deemed outside of normal existence by society’s standard. It explores nature vs. nurture, rebirth, and how one comes to terms to his/her own human identity.
529 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/
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