- Title: Middlesex
- Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
- Genre: Literature, Mainstream
- Format: Hardcover
- Source: Library
- Reviewed by: Olga
- Rating: 4 out of 5
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license…records my first name simply as Cal.”
So begins 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 1967, before they move 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.
Review: What is Middlesex? According to my dictionary, Middlesex is a county in England. After reading the first page, I decided that Middlesex refers to the sex of the protagonist, hermaphrodite Cal/Calliope. After having read half the book, I found the third interpretation: Calliope spent her childhood in the house by the name Middlesex.
Like its title, the novel is so complex, it defies definitions. On one hand, it is a family saga, tracing three generations of one Greek family from their point of origin – Smyrna burned by the Turks in 1922 – to modern Detroit. On the other hand, it’s a coming-of-age tale of Calliope, a young Greek-American hermaphrodite.
Following the writer’s capricious whim, the narrative jumps between Cal’s current romance in Germany and the amorous stories of his parents and grandparents. The convoluted path of the mutated chromosome, responsible for Cal’s hermaphrodite status, began with his grandparents, who committed a crime condemned by any government or religion on Earth: they were brother and sister.
Along with the 20th century America, Cal’s family suffered and matured. Ford’s auto factory and prohibition years, depression and illegal bootlegging, wars, Detroit race riots and San Francisco gay community: they all contributed to Cal’s story, shaping his family and his personality.
Cal’s personal journey starts in the second part of the book. Raised as a girl, loved and cherished by her parents, Calliope knows nothing about her unusual sexual proclivity, nor about the errant chromosome. She is a lovely girl until puberty struck, and the sin of her grandparents at last catches up with her. When instead of breasts and a period, Calliope starts developing a mustache, her parents and herself begin to worry.
The writer is extremely honest in describing Calliope’s turbulent thoughts and her recalcitrant body’s refusal to cooperate. Terrified of her impending visit to a gynecologist, she fakes her period, and her mother immediately calms down. But the girl doesn’t. She knows she is a freak. But she doesn’t know what kind. And like many teenagers, she is ashamed to ask.
Calliope’s search for sexual identity and her decision to live her life as a man forms the last part of the book. From Detroit to New York to San Francisco, from the upper middle class, loving Greek family to the sleazy strip club for sexual freaks, the newly-minted Cal travels the road of self-discovery and learning. His emotional nakedness finally brings him to self-acceptance and pride in being what he is – different. And the book that started with a question ends on a hopeful note – back home in Middlesex.
Unique and contemplative, the novel is full of philosophical and historical detours, mysterious medical references and hilarious observations of human follies, but above all, it is a marvelous read. The author’s fantastic command of the language made me frantically turn the pages. It felt like a verbal cake, rich and chocolaty, a treat for any word lover. It is no surprise that in 2003, Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize, the highest American award for fiction.
A note of confusion: I’m not sure what pronouns are appropriate for Cal/Calliope, so I alternated between ‘he’ and ‘she’, ‘his’ and ‘hers’.