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[322] Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

” 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/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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21 Responses

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I loved this book for its honesty in particular. There were points of the story I found less itneresting than others (when she was at high school for example) but it is still one of my all time favourite reads and highest recommendations.

    • It’s so “naked” in a sense. Eugenides doesn’t hide anything about how Callie went through her/his coming to terms with his sex. I found a bit of the family history tedious but it’s well worth the time after all.

  2. It was a heavy going book for me. I lost interest at some parts (eg the industrialization of america) but other than that, like you said, it brought me through a roller coaster of emotions. And I was much enlightened too, from the medical perspective of it.

    • This book has intimidated me for years because the blurb says Greek family immigrating to Detroit. Neither of the places fascinate me that much. But again, I’m wrong (just like East of Eden by Steinbeck). The emotional depth and the sardonic voice of the narrator kept me engaged.

  3. I loved Middlesex — it was my top read the year it came out.

  4. I loved this book for its plain honesty in dealing with such a challenging issue. A brave protagonist and an even braver Writer. I thought it interesting how the gender issue was placed in the background to the main action of this novel. In some ways I think this was deliberate because it makes readers more capable of accepting difference.
    Definitely a must read!

    • I am glad I have finally read this book because it truly speaks the truth of our time. In the age when kids are being bullied for their sexual orientation, this book cannot be more relevant.

  5. Hmm… I really want to read this book, and have for awhile, but I’m a little concerned. Does it argue that the hermaphroditism is due to the fact that his parents were brother/sister? It’s the impression I got from this review and I’m not sure I’m a fan of that argument!

    • The book gives a very well-balanced notion on hermaphroditism. It also delves into the medical/genetic aspect of the rare condition. What I got out of the reading is that consanguinity can be but not the exclusive cause of this condition.

  6. Wonderfully insightful review, Matt! I read this one a few years ago and thought it was good, but definitely preferred the first half of the book to the second. Even though so much of the hype was about the hermaphrodite transformation, I thought that part of the novel was a bit anticlimactic. Never thought about the connection between immigration and hermaphroditism, but I think you’re right on linking the two!

    • Really Steph? I actually prefer the second half over the first because I’m too wrapped with the curiosity at what is going to become of Callie. After all, Middlesex is cross-genre in my book. The first half is a social history and family saga of the immigrants. Bridging the generations is Detroit, the motor town of America where racial difference was still a problem. The parallelism between immigrant experience and hermaphroditism is just beautifully but subtly portrayed.

  7. I listened to this book on audio, and it just rocked my world. It was so BIG, in that it covered so many different issues and events. I loved the humor, the sarcasm, the quirky family, and Callie’s confusing coming-of-age. Great review, but of course I knew it would be.

    • The idea of listening to the novel has seized me after I turned the last page. And guess who I thought might have done so? You. 🙂 I do want to re-live the experience of growing pain, the humor, the sarcasm, and the confusion with one’s identity through audio. Now I know I won’t be disappointed.

  8. I have this book back when I was in my college dorm, but I lost it while I was moving out. Never got the chance to read it.. Sucks.

  9. Oh yeah. Middlesex is one of my favorite books of all time (probably on the top of the lot really). I never found it tedious in the slightest. It was a delight from beginning to the end. Eugenides is my literary hero.

  10. Too many people have been telling me to read this book for me to ignore it much longer. This sounds like it will be one of my favorites once I’ve finally read it!

  11. […] Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides. 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. […]

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