I d seen this book on the shelves of a number of friends and in the arms of a number of travelers, so I decided to pick it up The title, Middlesex , suggested English countryside to me On the cover was what looked like a steamship, and a quote on the back began Part Tristram Shanty, part Ishmael So I came to the foolish conclusion that this was some 19th century English seafaring novel Typical I couldn t have been wrong.
Middlesex is the story of a hermaphrodite who grew up as Calliope but discovered in her adolescence that she is actually Cal than Calliope More specifically, Middlesex the title takes on a new meaning now is the story of three generations of a Greek family and the incestuous genetic and social history that enables the existence of Cal, who narrates the story.
The novel is epic It spans nearly a century and traces the Stephanides family from battle torn Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, across an Atlantic voyage, from the street corners of Detroit, through World War II, and out to the suburban haven of Grosse Pointe, Michigan The novel incorporates details upon details from all different spheres of life, dropping name brands from different time periods and regions and incorporating specialized jargon from a wide range of fields Jeffrey Eugenides must have done an immense, immense amount of research during the writing process And the scope is as broad as the focus is often narrow Over the course of 20th century, the Stephanides family responds to and participates in political, social, and cultural movements, and through them, we feel not only the sweep of a small Greek enclave, but also the sweep of a nation s growth as it engages Prohibition, World War II, the idealism of the 50s, the revolutions of the 60s and 70s, and The story is as much about the conflicts within a country as it is about a family trying to face its secrets, past and present Through it all, Cal, as a narrator, is clever and endearing A story about a hermaphrodite sounds unfamiliar to most at first, and there are moments in the novel when Cal faces the visceral or fearful reactions that arise in those prone to fear But, from page one, Eugenides clears the air, setting us on a fresh foundation, and we discover a character who faces familiar childhood and adolescent trials and tribulations we discover the humanity of a character one might otherwise find alienated elsewhere Do I recommend itYes It s a good tale for the modern age Would I teach itNot likely At 527 pages, it s just too long Lasting impressionEpic I ll remember it for the incredible depth and breadth of knowledge it demonstrates This novel impresses upon me the amount of research that an author must do to prepare for a serious work.
This would have been better as an NPR story or an episode of This American Life than a novel Or maybe if someone other than Eugenides had written it An interesting idea, and a few engrossing sex scenes I like the crocus and the peep tank, and the whole long flirtation with The Object drew me in completely , and a nice two pages toward the end when Julie accepts Cal for what he is But the prose was awful frequent maneuvers like And me That s simple I was are really unacceptable And Sing, Muse, of Greek ladies and their battle against unsightly hair is about as funny as poop Except for the incest, the long family history plot was like a mashup of immigrant dramas from cable TV Greek family barely escapes home country to make it to the United States, where they wander through 20th century history in a dull procession of unmotivated Gumpy forays into Wikipedia that have no effect whatsoever on their character development Now we ll shove these characters through Prohibition mass production the Detroit race riots The partition of Cyprus San Francisco hippies the tragedy of Michael Dukakis s helmet moment and the founding of the Nation of Islam The incest part of the story was good in the beginning the early love scenes between the grandparents are wonderful and then impressively tedious Desdemona feels guilt and then she feels guilt again The metaphors are embarassingly bad Cal lives on a street named Middlesex, and eventually finds reconciliation of the two sides of himself in Berlin after reunification Why not have Desdemona live on I Feel Guilty For Sleeping With My Brother Boulevard Cal remains completely undefined as a character, except in terms of his understandably tough time figuring out his own identity confused isn t much of a character Everyone else in the book fails to exist at all Jimmy Zizmo turns out to be the founder of the Nation of Islam Eugenides says self importantly that you ve probably guessed that no Not only did I not guess it, it doesn t make any sense, logical or emotional, and it s completely uninteresting Why not have him turn out to be Richard Nixon Uncle Mike turns out to be a psychopath who extorts his own family Why Who cares Cal s lack of voice or character is the worst thing if your book aims to show readers what it s like inside the world of an intersex person, you should show us that world from the inside in a way that makes sense, or at least a way that s interesting Cal has no voice, no face, no identity What voice there is is completely inconsistent with his behavior the current Cal is reticent, shy, depressed, lonely, and retiring our narrator is open, boisterous, discursive, ironic, omniscient for no particular reason, and irritatingly jokey And the book no has ideas about sexuality than it does about Cal s character As one reviewer said, the most disappointing thing about the book is it ends up reinforcing stereotyped, dumb ideas about gender like Breasts have the same effect on me as on anyone with my testosterone level as if there were no gays Callie s pursuit of The Object doesn t make her question categories, it just convinces her she s a boy There is no middle sex here there s no middle ground it s gawking than Tiresias like insight.
I was born twice first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960 and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974I d heard Middlesex was about a character who was born intersex and raised as a girl a compelling enough premise on its own but I didn t realize this book was a rich, complex family drama, spanning multiple generations and featuring heavy subjects like incest, immigration, family secrets and twentieth century America.
It seems some readers were disappointed about this and wanted from our protagonist and narrator, but I honestly love these kind of stories So many characters came in and out of this novel, and were in turns likeable, deserving of sympathy, annoying and downright insufferable but kind of in a good way I love it when authors create such well drawn individuals who feel so completely real and alive it makes me far invested in their stories.
And there is so much going on here We are taken on a journey of familial and genetic history, from a small Greek village to Detroit prohibition, race riots and many cultural changes to suburban Michigan Eugenides allows Cal to explore his identity and come to terms with who he is by taking his story way back to the beginning Back before he questioned his gender back before he was even conceived.
I actually quite liked the idea that a person has been years in the making long before they re born That our stories begin way before us in far off lands, in communities and societies that are foreign to us Not to get too cheesy, but there s something pleasantly overwhelming about novels that make me feel small amid the vast expanse of the universe.
I really liked it I liked the science I liked the history And I really liked the novel s humanity all these unforgettable characters each having an important part to play in the story of Calliope Cal Stephanides.
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Alright, it s high time I review this hermaphroditic little masterpiece.
Being a pseudo biochemist pseudo in the sense that I only pretend to be a biochemist, whereas in reality I write scientific development reports and other documents that no one will ever read but which I ve convinced myself are just as fulfilling as doing real science , I find the premise of this novel to be incredibly interesting.
5 Reductase deficiency is an autosomal recessive disorder autosomal meaning that the gene coding for 5 Reductase is not located on a sex chromosome X or Y , and recessive meaning that one would need two copies of a mutated form of the gene in order to express the disease trait Since we as a biological species inherit one copy of every gene from each of our parents, it would not be enough to have only one mutated form of this gene because a single good copy is all that s required for proper function Because of this, the proper functioning gene is considered to be completely dominant over the mutated form in terms of phenotypic expression.
Here is a Punnett square showing basic concepts of Mendelian genetics Each form of the gene is called an allele B represents the dominant allele, or the healthy gene form b represents the recessive allele If both parents are phenotypically normal, the only way they would be able to have any offspring with this disease is if they were both carriers, meaning they each have one dominant and one recessive allele In this way, they are said to be heterozygous for this trait, the genotype of which is represented as Bb For any child they conceive, there would exist a 25% chance of that child inheriting two recessive alleles This is referred to as being homozygous recessive, the genotype of which is represented as bb Only homozygous recessive children will express the disease.
Since the protagonist of this novel has unluckily inherited both recessive alleles, one from each of his parents, he ends up with the disorder So what is this disorder, exactly The 5 Reductase gene codes for an enzyme which converts testosterone into a potent sex steroid called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, which plays a fundamental role in the formation of the male sex organs Since disease subjects do not have the ability to convert testosterone into DHT, they end up with too much testosterone and not enough DHT, which in some cases leads to the formation of ambiguous genitalia.
These ambiguous genitalia form one of the many, but probably the most interesting, subjects of the novel The author begins by tracing the history of these recessive alleles back through the family lineage before elegantly leading us to the budding of the protagonist s crocus his ambiguous little penis stub yes, you should click there and yes, you should see that movie Perhaps not surprisingly, the historical tracing reveals some ancestral inbreeding, as well And since the protagonist is still genotypically male even though he doesn t know it and neither do his parents or anybody else , the real fun begins when he enters puberty.
When I met with my book club to talk about this fantastic novel, a few pronoun choices were used for describing the protagonist he, she, he she it, etc But all joking aside, the protagonist is male He is male by genotypic definition he has two healthy sex chromosomes, one of which is a Y , and he sexually identifies himself as male which is consistent with other real life sufferers of 5 Reductase deficiency.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is a surprising and wonderfully written story about the life of Calliope Cal Stephanopolis who in the opening lines was born twice first, as a baby girland then again as a teenage boy The subject of hermaphroditism or intersexuality is addressed throughout as the book as a running theme as the cin matographique narrator Cal looks back at his childhood as Calliope and explains his complex incestuous family history from the origins of her grandparents as Greeks fleeing Smyrna as the Turks invade to Detroit from the 20s up to the 70s The narrative time shifts between his life as a 41 year old man Cal to this running family history written in a witty, humorous style which I found fun and engaging The text ingeniously woven together from history and science with many recurrent themes silkworms, Greek orthodox beliefs and practices, guilt and redemption, etc I couldn t put this book down This is the only Eugenides book I have read but it will definitely check out his other books.
An interesting sidenote trying to explain the book daddy is reading to my 7yo daughter and my 10yo son, I was able to painlessly explain why brothers and sisters cannot get married a very common kid s question and even reproductive functions in a painless and intuitive way since Callie has organs of both sexes but the penis zizi in kid s French is inside her vagina zezette she cannot have babies and will never menstruate clean the house where the baby can live She also has too many male hormones to develop breasts which happens about the same time or just before menstruation This deformation was the improbable result of the union of a brother and sister two generations back Nature wants to ensure a varied gene pool and thus it is better to seek love outside one s own family This explanation seemed to satisfy both of them UPDATE Great recent article at good housekeeping.
This is LIFE AFFIRMING literature that s meant to be treasured for the rest of your life The main character will stay with you until the day you die This isn t so much a review as an embarrassing story I gave the book four stars for a reason The writing is beautiful I would recommend it Now onwards to my shame.
So Brooke and I were standing in line to meet Eugenides Please understand it was a really long line after a similarly long day at work We passed the time chitchatting about this and that at our workplace and life in general By the time the organizer offered post its to our segment of the line, we were getting silly and joked about all the crazy names and titles you could request Instead of sticking to your name, you could put down Boo Bear or Sunshine Sally Just imagine you could have an autographed book with some outrageous inscription like To the best unicorn, Jeffrey Eugenides Throughout the course of the night, I had been trying to persuade Brooke to visit a bookstore I thought she would enjoy She was reluctant for unknown reasons Under the influence of a bizarre mixture of exasperation, exhaustion, and silliness, I proposed a bet I had already written my plain ole name on the post it If she promised to accompany me to an event at the bookstore, I would add baby under my name She quickly agreed.
As we waited thereafter, I began to second guess the stunt But before I could request a new post it, the line betrayed me While it had moved at a glacial pace initially, now it swept me forward When I handed Eugenides my book, he stared at the post it for a second and then looked up at us He asked, Who is Cassy Baby Is that you I was mortified Utterly mortified I tried to quickly explain the promised bookstore visit, but I think in actuality I just pointed at Brooke and mumbled something like, She made me Looking back, the whole episode could be construed as a power struggle Could a literary nobody force a Pulitzer Prize winner to write something stupid If he refused, he might seem like a jerk His best option was probably to play along and, bless his heart, he did Perhaps he thought it was amusing I doubt it So, here it is image error Middlesex Tells The Breathtaking Story Of Calliope Stephanides, And Three Generations Of The Greek American Stephanides Family, Who Travel From A Tiny Village Overlooking Mount Olympus In Asia Minor To Prohibition Era Detroit, Witnessing Its Glory Days As The Motor City And The Race Riots Of Before Moving Out To The Tree Lined Streets Of Suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan To Understand Why Calliope Is Not Like Other Girls, She Has To Uncover A Guilty Family Secret, And The Astonishing Genetic History That Turns Callie Into Cal, One Of The Most Audacious And Wondrous Narrators In Contemporary Fiction Lyrical And Thrilling, Middlesex Is An Exhilarating Reinvention Of The American Epic This is a book about transition.
Transition from child to adult to parent and grandparent.
From native to immigrant.
From brother and sister to husband and wife.
From rural dweller to urbanite.
From modest affluence to poverty and up again.
From loving language to losing the power of speech.
From geek to hippie From war through peace to civil unrest.
From belief to unbelief.
From rescued to rescuer.
From moral probity to corruption and crime.
Oh, and one character transitions from female to male.
The last of those is the book s USP, but don t let that fool you it s no limited to those with niche interests in intersex conditions than it s limited to those of Greek heritage It is an unusual story, but with universal themes, told by a wonderfully engaging, lyrical, narrator.
Few of us fit neatly into binary categories We all go through many transitions in our lives the final one is only another kind of emigration This book speaks to everyone, not just those like Cal s family who have always had a knack for self transformation.
PlotThe family originally raised silkworms, so metamorphosis and long threads are at the heart of their lives as well as the story No fear of spoilers the key aspects are summarised in the opening paragraphs, starting with I was born twice first, as a baby girl and then again, as a teenage boy The rest of the book brings two strands together Cal s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, fleeing the Turks in 1922 as siblings, and arriving in the US as husband and wife, and how that meant Cal ended up with a recessive intersex condition, and is now telling his story He sometimes addresses the reader directly shout outs to deus ex machina, Checkov s gun etc.
In many respects, it is a conventional sweeping family drama, of the ups and downs of the American Dream building and rebuilding businesses against the backdrop of the Vietnam war and civil rights movement, but with an extra dose of teen angst about puberty or lack thereof However, the final few chapters strike an oddly different tone Octopussy s Garden is partly to hammer home the parallels with Greek mythology and echo a passage in the middle where Cal muses on the transformations of puberty, using sea creatures as an analogy , but the final intrigue and chase felt very off key, compared with the rest of the book.
There is also an innate female circularity to the story , perhaps because Greeks believe that to be happy you have to find variety in repetition that to go forward you have to come back to where you began This is compounded by some reversal like Amis s execrable Time s Arrow in old age, Lefty s mind and memories go into reverse, and in an early section, Cal describes his birth like a film on rewind.
Destiny The Known and UnknownCal is omniscient, not just when he remembers things he wouldn t be able to recall including being a foetus , but also in terms of how much he knows about other people s inner thoughts and private actions On a few occasions, it feels a little weird the erotic significance of the grandmother s corset, for instance , but it s how he makes the extraordinary aspects of the plot credible he has already conjured believable characters the reader cares about Nevertheless, the lack of knowledge often displayed is staggering yet just about plausible The most significant examples are that Desdemona and Lefty get away with their relationship, and that no one realises Calliope as he originally is is not a girl There are others, though, such as teenage fumblings and , at which point Cal clearly understood that I wasn t a girl but something in between , though the boy involved did not.
Some of the ignorance is cultivated When Desdemona and Lefty fake a courtship on the boat, Lefty never discouraged any speculation He seized the opportunity of transatlantic travel to reinvent himself Aware that whatever happened now would become the truth Playing out this imaginary flirtation they began to believe it it wasn t other travellers they were trying to convince it was themselves Forgetting also matters Everything about Middlesex the house spoke of forgetting and everything about Desdemona made plain the inescapability of forgetting There are echoes of Greek mythology throughout, which gives a certain weight and tone to how Cal tells it For instance, An infinite number of possible selves crowded the threshold as Cal s parents prepare to conceive him, and it s no coincidence that his childhood church was the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, and that they later move to Middlesex Boulevard It also creates an additional layer of foreshadowing Cal s father is conceived after his parents see a play about a hybrid monster, and at a significant medical appointment about Cal, Milton Cal s father wears traditional Tragedy and Comedy masks as cufflinks which way will it go SexSexual identity is key Desdemona is obsessed with predicting the sex of unborn children, and Cal himself was only conceived because his parents really wanted a girl they already had a son and believed they had found a way to improve the odds of that He was born at the women s hospital and It was all around me from the beginning, the weight of female suffering, with its biblical justification and vanishing acts Nothing unusual was noticed by the elderly doctor, so Five minutes old, and already the themes of my life chance and sex announced themselves There is relatively little about Cal s adaptation to living as a man though there is a sweet sideline in learning how to date women, the perils of what to tell them when etc Most of the story leads up to that realization the agonies of not developing when her friends do, then growing oddly tall and awkward, struggling with infatuation with girls etc However, there are glimpses of the adult issues I m not androgynous when Calliope surfaces, she does so like a childhood speech impediment It s a little like being possessed Callie rises up inside me, wearing my skin like a loose robe But then, just as suddenly, she is leaving, shrinking and melting away inside me Cal is currently in Berlin and This once divided city reminds me of myself A childhood trip to Cyprus was cancelled by annexation Cyprus was being cut in half like all the other places in the world that were no longer one thing or the other It is incest that causes Cal s condition, but there is no rancour in the telling of the story, perhaps because it s not just Desdemona and Lefty Other cousins married each other Cal s parents are cousins, conceived on the same day, who grew up together , and even some couples who are not related by blood have a rather incestuous aspect a much older husband who treats his wife in some ways like a daughter an engaged couple who split, only for the spurned man to marry the sister of her new boyfriend one sibling suggesting another experiment with masturbation a first sexual encounter with a best friend s brother, followed by intimacy with the friend But none of it s salacious A quiet irony is that the English test at Ellis Island is about eunuchs DesdeomonaCal s grandmother is central to the book In many ways they have very contrasting lives, but there are surprising parallels too After an initial coldness, there is a special bond between them Desdemona disapproved of Milton and Tessie marrying, of trying to choose their sex of the baby, and was then upset when her prediction of a boy was wrong However, she was quickly won over, at which point, Cal gave Desdemona back her original sin.
She had been an innocent village girl, surprised by developments of her own body as well as her heart and that of her brother Her body was a constant embarrassment to her It was always announcing itself in ways she didn t want to sanction her body was still a stranger to its owner , which applies just as much to Cal Similarly, just as Desdemona had to reinvent herself as wife instead of sister, and forge an identity in a new country, Callie becomes Cal, Like a stroke victim as Lefty was , I was having to learn all the most simple skills and I was like an immigrant to the world of men Diagnosis and Treatment What Determines Gender 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 Gender is not always clearcut, determined by a variety of influences chromosomal sex gonadal sex hormones internal genital structures external genitals and, most important, the sex of rearing The last is the belief of the doctor, who saw it as like a native tongue imprinted in the brain during childhood Cal, raised as a girl, proves otherwise.
Cal s father looks to medicine to fix her problem, and both parents react differently Milton heard the words that were there He heard treatment and effective Tessie, on the other hand, heard the words that weren t there The doctor hadn t said my name He hadn t said daughter either He didn t use any pronouns Cal is left poised between the print of genetics and the White Out of surgery But we re all made up of many parts Controversy Appropriateness and SensitivitySome question Eugenides right to write a book like this He is Greek American, but does not have any intersex condition and is not a trans person Further, Cal and his doctors uses the term hermaphrodite , which many find offensive when applied to people.
As a straight cis woman, with no medical background, I guess I am not really in a position to defend against such criticisms Nevertheless, I think those who actually read it would find it hard to take offence at the sensitive and insightful way this aspect is portrayed As for the H word, I expect it s what doctors in the 1960s would have used and there are still places where 5 Alpha Reductase Deficiency is described in such terms Eugenides has said The story of Hermaphroditus, the beautiful son of Hermes and Aphrodite, is one I retell, in modern guise, in two different sections of the book and I m referring not to a person or a group of people but to a literary character From For me, one of the bigger issues is the focus of mid teen Cal s desires, The Obscure Object Calling a girl or woman an object can t be good, can it Yet it doesn t come across as objectifying in the usual sense It s a way of preserving anonymity and distance, reflecting her special, idolised, position in Cal s life More troubling is the the issue of consent view spoiler If one partner is apparently asleep but enjoying things, and the pattern is repeated over many nights, is that OK As a plain question, I d say not, but the way it s described, I m inclined to sit firmly on the fence Another tricky aspect is the exploitation or not of sex workers even if it s dressed up as empowerment, I m not convinced it is hide spoiler 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 Let me say first that Jeffrey Eugenides is an extraordinary storyteller Why I ve waited so long to read one of his books is beyond me Middlesex is an epic multi generational saga of a Greek family with one of the most engaging narrative voices I ve come across in quite some time It s also the story of said narrator, Cal, and what might be considered a rather unconventional topic that of hermaphroditismI was born twice first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960 and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974I have to admit that I picked this book up ages ago and set it aside At the time I thought there was no way I could establish any kind of connection to the main character given the fact I had never had any kind of exposure to persons with this condition There is an incestuous element that made me run the other direction as well Now of course I ve matured a bit since that time and realize that there are a myriad of ways to connect to any human being The skillful pen of Eugenides helped a bit too, of course This time, I was hooked from the start and simply couldn t help but be charmed by Cal The author takes us into some places that are uncomfortable those shadowy places that could get quite dark if handled differently Instead we are taken there with a voice that is often humorous while still managing to be sensitive and respectful an admirable accomplishment I m not going to go into any further detail about this book there are thousands of other reviews and my goal is to catch up on mine before summer slips away I ve failed to mention that this book is also rich in historical detail, and I m always a sucker for that Eugenides manages to weave so much history throughout and he does so quite seamlessly Motor City, the Detroit race riots, Asia Minor conflicts, immigration issues, and family dynamics are all explored But Middlesex is much than that It s also a drama about the human condition that is so compelling that you will feel an attachment to Cal even if you never thought it possible If you can set aside any feelings of uneasiness and just allow yourself to get swept away with Cal s story, then you are in for a real treat A 5 star book that I highly recommend