I know I started this book in 2011, but I finished it yesterday, so it’s officially the first book I’ve read in 2012. And I LOVED it.
Middlesexby Jeffrey Eugenides tells the story of Calliope/Cal as she grows up and comes to terms with her identity as a hermaphrodite. The book opens with Cal describing that he was born twice – once as a girl, and once as a boy.
- A 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner, described as a “vastly realized, multi-generational novel as highspirited as it is intelligent . . . Like the masks of Greek drama, Middlesex is equal parts comedy and tragedy, but its real triumph is its emotional abundance, delivered with consummate authority and grace.”
But in order to tell his story, he has to go back two generations to Greece, where his grandparents lived. In the early 1920s, Desdemona and Lefty are brother and sister, orphans, making a living off of selling silkworm cocoons. However, as the Turks begin to invade and destroy their town, Desdemona and Lefty realize that they are attracted to each other, despite being related. When their city burns down, they pretend to be French in order to board a ship, and they leave for America.
While on board, they act out a romance, pretending not to know each other before the voyage. Lefty courts Desdemona on the ship and they eventually get married. Cal realizes that the actions of his grandparents are eventually what caused his 5-alpha-reductase-deficiency
, which is what caused him to be born with female characteristics.
When Desdemona and Lefty reach America, they move to Detroit to live with their cousin, who agrees to keep it a secret that they are brother and sister. Desdemona eventually becomes pregnant with Milton and is tormented by the thought that she could give birth to a monster. Milton is born healthy, and later Desdemona has another child, but then receives surgery so she won’t have any more.
Milt grows up and eventually marries his cousin Tessie. They have a son, Chapter Eleven, and a daughter, Calliope. Throughout the entire book, Cal states that if someone would have paid better attention to his birth, his life could have turned out vastly different. But, since the family went to an old friend (old as in his upper 70s) for their physician, who was going blind, Cal’s strange underparts went unnoticed. Cal was raised as Calliope, and seemed to be a girl up until hitting puberty.
The story, up until now, focused on Desdemona and Lefty and then Milt and Tessie, with bits of narrative by Cal spread throughout. This back-storytelling is fascinating, and includes information about the riots that took place in Detroit. It describes Desdemona’s shame but fierce determinism to keep her secret, and how Tessie almost married Milt’s brother, Mike (who later became Father Mike). It describes the ethnic heritage, the religious overtones of being brought up in the Greek Orthodox Church, and the challenges that the 60s brought to parents, as Milt watched Chapter Eleven become a hippie and run off with a Marxist girl (but eventually came back home).
Now, the story focuses only on Cal. Raised as a girl, she played with dolls and went to an all-girls school. However, she fails to get her period year after year, and begins to fake it in order to avoid going to a gynecologist. She develops a friendship and eventual romance with a friend referred to as the Object (in order to “protect her,” even though this is a work of fiction). She doesn’t develop as a normal girl does, and instead starts to grow what resembles a mustache, which she waxes and waves away under the pretense that Greek women are prone to dark hair in annoying places, and watches her shoulders broaden and her face square up.
Cal’s parents finally take her to a doctor, who performs a series of physical and psychological tests on her. She lies throughout most of the interviews, solidifying the doctor’s belief that she was raised a girl and should remain a girl. Up until this point, it is unclear whether or not Cal is genetically a girl or a boy. The doctor makes his recommendation, and Cal is scheduled for surgery the next day to ‘fix things up’ and receive hormones in order to develop as a girl. But, the doctor leaves the room and Cal reads her file, discovering that she is in fact a boy with an XY chromosome, and to become a girl would be to change who she is. She runs away – cuts her long hair, buys a suit, lets the mustache grow, and becomes Cal.
Cal hitchikes to California and starts working at a club where he swims around in the “Octopussy Garden,” but after a police raid, is forced to call home. Cal learns that Milton has died in an accident (side story about sibling rivalry that led to ultimate destruction…a mysterious kidnapper leads to a reckless car chase…) and returns home where he stands guard at the door of his house while his family attends the funeral. Tradition dictates that the man of the family guard the house to prevent the spirit from returning, so Cal stands in the doorway and mourns his dad alone.
This book is fantastic. I can only imagine the amount of research put into it! And the prose is beautiful – there are so many aspects of the plot woven together effortlessly. The narration spans three generations and alternates between the story and the ‘present,’ in which Cal is dating a woman named Julie and trying to get up the courage to tell her the truth about him. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good story, is interested in an immigrant’s experience in America, how cultural identity is formed, and how gender identity is formed.