Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides published in 2002. The book is a bestseller, with more than three million copies sold by May 2011. Its characters and events are loosely based on aspects of Eugenides’ life and observations of his Greek heritage. It is not an autobiography; unlike the protagonist, Eugenides is not intersex. The author decided to write Middlesex after he read the 1980 memoir Herculine Barbin and was dissatisfied with its discussion of intersex anatomy and emotions.
Primarily a coming-of-age story (Bildungsroman) and family saga, the novel chronicles the effect of a mutated gene on three generations of a Greek family, causing momentous changes in the protagonist’s life. According to scholars, the novel’s main themes are nature versus nurture, rebirth, and the differing experiences of what society constructs as polar opposites—such as those found between men and women. It discusses the pursuit of the American Dream and explores gender identity. The novel contains many allusions to Greek mythology, including creatures such as the Minotaur, half-man and half-bull, and the Chimera, a monster composed of various animal parts.
Narrator and protagonist Cal Stephanides (initially called “Callie”) is an intersex man of Greek descent with a condition known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which causes him to have certain feminine traits. The first half of the novel is about Cal’s family and depicts his grandparents’ migration from Bursa, a city in Asia Minor, to the United States in 1922. It follows their assimilation into American society in Detroit, Michigan, then a booming industrial city. The latter half of the novel, set in the late 20th century, focuses on Cal’s experiences in his hometown of Detroit and his escape to San Francisco, where he comes to terms with his modified gender identity.
Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Book Review considered Middlesex one of the best books of 2002, and some scholars believed the novel should be considered for the title of Great American Novel. Generally, reviewers felt that the novel succeeded in portraying its Greek immigrant drama and were also impressed with Eugenides’ depiction of his hometown of Detroit—praising him for his social commentary. Reviewers from the medical, gay, and intersex communities mostly praised Middlesex, though some intersex commentators have been more critical. In 2007, the book was featured in Oprah’s Book Club.
“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 1974.” And so begins Middlesex, the mesmerizing saga of a near-mythic Greek American family and the “roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time.” The odd but utterly believable story of Cal Stephanides, and how this 41-year-old hermaphrodite was raised as Calliope, is at the tender heart of this long-awaited second novel from Jeffrey Eugenides, whose elegant and haunting 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides, remains one of the finest first novels of recent memory.
Eugenides weaves together a kaleidoscopic narrative spanning 80 years of a stained family history, from a fateful incestuous union in a small town in early 1920s Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit; from the early days of Ford Motors to the heated 1967 race riots; from the tony suburbs of Grosse Pointe and a confusing, aching adolescent love story to modern-day Berlin. Eugenides’s command of the narrative is astonishing. He balances Cal/Callie’s shifting voices convincingly, spinning this strange and often unsettling story with intelligence, insight, and generous amounts of humor:
Emotions, in my experience aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” … I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” … I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.
When you get to the end of this splendorous book, when you suddenly realize that after hundreds of pages you have only a few more left to turn over, you’ll experience a quick pang of regret knowing that your time with Cal is coming to a close, and you may even resist finishing it–putting it aside for an hour or two, or maybe overnight–just so that this wondrous, magical novel might never end. –Brad Thomas Parsons
From Publishers Weekly
As the Age of the Genome begins to dawn, we will, perhaps, expect our fictional protagonists to know as much about the chemical details of their ancestry as Victorian heroes knew about their estates. If so, Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides) is ahead of the game. His beautifully written novel begins: “Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce’s study, ‘Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites.’ ” The “me” of that sentence, “Cal” Stephanides, narrates his story of sexual shifts with exemplary tact, beginning with his immigrant grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty. On board the ship taking them from war-torn Turkey to America, they married-but they were brother and sister. Eugenides spends the book’s first half recreating, with a fine-grained density, the Detroit of the 1920s and ’30s where the immigrants settled: Ford car factories and the tiny, incipient sect of Black Muslims. Then comes Cal’s story, which is necessarily interwoven with his parents’ upward social trajectory. Milton, his father, takes an insurance windfall and parlays it into a fast-food hotdog empire. Meanwhile, Tessie, his wife, gives birth to a son and then a daughter-or at least, what seems to be a female baby. Genetics meets medical incompetence meets history, and Callie is left to think of her “crocus” as simply unusually long-until she reaches the age of 14. Eugenides, like Rick Moody, has an extraordinary sensitivity to the mores of our leafier suburbs, and Cal’s gender confusion is blended with the story of her first love, Milton’s growing political resentments and the general shedding of ethnic habits. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about this book is Eugenides’s ability to feel his way into the girl, Callie, and the man, Cal. It’s difficult to imagine any serious male writer of earlier eras so effortlessly transcending the stereotypes of gender. This is one determinedly literary novel that should also appeal to a large, general audience.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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