Published in 2002, Middlesex is different from any bildungsroman I’ve ever read; it’s a fantastic journey, and it is no wonder Jeffrey Eugenides won the Pulitzer for it in 2003. While the novel focuses on Calliope Stephanides, the narrator (first-person), it’s a family saga. Much emphasis is placed on the sins of the father; the role of incest and family genetics is fully developed as a living, breathing character that needs to be acknowledged for its role in the Stephanides’s family. God and religion are also faceless but important characters in the story that spans decades and takes it readers from Asia Minor to New York to Detroit to Germany.
The novel opens with, “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.” Calliope (later Cal) quickly tells the reader that he has 5-Alpha-Reductase deficiency – this only affects genetic males and while these males are born with male gonads, they often exhibit female sexual characteristics. (In the case of Cal, the testicles did not drop and the smaller penis was thought to be a larger clitoris by those who noticed it – Cal’s family doctor didn’t exactly examine Cal.) This introduction also tells readers, “A redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe fell in love with me, not knowing what I was. (Her brother liked me, too.) An army tank let me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into a myth; I’ve left my body in order to occupy others – and all this happened before I turned sixteen.” The novel then explains the most interesting story of growing up as Calliope and finding Cal, with pertinent familial information and a present-day Cal plot included.
In 1922, Cal’s grandmother, Desdemona, an Asia Minor Greek, fled her home with her brother, Lefty. As the city burned around them, they pretended to be French citizens and were awarded passage on a boat to America. On this boat, they began an elaborate charade that would continue their entire lives; they pretended to not know each other, and then to fall in love. The brother and the sister married and began life in America as husband and wife. Later in life, as age began to tear down his defenses, Lefty began going back in time; however, whenever he began to refer to Desdemona as his sister, everyone but Desdemona thought he was simply going senile.
Lefty and Desdemona went to Detroit to live with a cousin, Sourmelina, and her husband, Jimmy. Lina was the only one in America other than the good doctor the pair brough with them who knew the truth about the couple. Lina was no stranger to skeletons in the closet – she’d been forced to essentially become a mail-order bride after she’d been discovered in a compromising situation with another female. Lefty and Desdemona had two kids – Milton and Zoe. Desdemona knew she was playing with fire by continuing a sexual relationship with Lefty and, since she was unable to cut him loose, she had her tubes tied, a rather advanced procedure for the time.
Milton ends up marrying Lina and Jimmy’s daughter, Theodora – Tessie. The seduction started when he would play his clarinet against her skin. Personally, I can think of several more seductive instruments, but it worked. Tessie and Milton are Cal’s and Chapter Eleven’s parents. (Chapter Eleven is obviously a nickname – an interview with the author makes it clear that he uses it to allude to Cal’s brother’s future bankruptcy problems.)
Callie has an interesting life growing up in Detroit. When the city gets a little too “dark” for Milton, he moves his family to a very bizarrely constructed house called Middlesex. She notices that she is not developing as other girls and, upon fear of having to see a gynecologist, begins to fake her period. At fourteen, she falls in love with a girl known only as “The Obscure Object.” While it all seems innocent – young girls practicing kissing on each other, exploring their sexuality together – Callie becomes a bit obsessed. She’s invited to spend the summer with the object of her obsession/affection. Much to her dismay, the Object has an Object of her own and his family has a place near them. Callie, the Object, Jerome (the Object’s brother), and Rex Reese (the Object’s crush) take some beer and head out to the woods to find a hunter’s cabin. Callie decides that if the Object is going to make her jealous by flirting with Rex, then she will ignore the Object and flirt with Jerome. The foursome splits once in the cabin and they drink, smoke pot, flirt, and begin to the somewhat quiet journey of exploring bodies. Callie watches the Object with Rex and finds herself wishing Rex’s hands were her hands, his mouth, hers. Jerome touches her while she watches and she lets him and before she realizes it, he is inside of her and it hurts. She panics when he removes himself from her that he knows something is wrong with her, but he is busy gloating about going “all the way.” Callie will later learn that the pain she felt was his penis against her testicles. He hadn’t noticed her “crocus” – thought to be a larger clit, but in reality a small penis. After that night, she begins a sexual relationship with the Object. Jerome uncovers this and struggles with many different emotions. Callie’s testosterone skyrockets and she has every intention of beating the hell out of him for making the Object cry. Long story short, Callie flees from him and has an accident with some farm equipment. The car ride to the hospital is the last time she sees the Object.
At the hospital, her true self is discovered; she is fourteen. Milton and Tessie do not believe the doctors and take her for a second opinion; the diagnosis remains the same. The family goes to New York to meet with Dr. Peter Luce, an expert on sexual disorders and gender identity. Her meetings with him include physical exams, Q&A sessions, and watching porn to determine her sexual attractions. She answers the questions as a straight female would because she thinks that is wanted of her. After two weeks, he tells the family that Callie really is female and a small operation and hormone therapy will assist her in living life that way. He tells them she will never be able to have children, but that she can live a happy life as a female. The novel probably would have ended there, but Dr. Luce makes the mistake of leaving Callie’sfolder with her when he has to leave the room; she reads it and discovers that she is genetically a male. At that point, she decides she was meant to be a boy and a boy she will be. She runs away, cuts her hair, and begins to live as Cal.
Cal hitchhikes to California where he eventually finds work in a burlesque show as “The God, HERmaphRODitus.” The show is eventually busted up; its owner and feature attractions arrested. Cal is handed over to the custody of Chapter Eleven. He returns home in time for his father’s funeral. Milton is killed in a car accident after being duped by the priest Tessie turned down (who ended up marrying Aunt Zoe) into giving over money for the safe return of Callie. Cal goes to visit Desdemona and, at first, she doesn’t know who he/she is and Cal doesn’t want to upset her, but finally it sinks in. She blames herself and tells him that Lefty was her brother. She tells him that when she dies, he can tell everyone. And he does.
Published nearly a decade after The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex seems to secure Eugenides’s position as a gifted, though not prolific, writer. I haven’t read (or seen) The Virgin Suicides, so I am unable to compare his sophomore attempt to his much loved first novel. I will say that the intertwining plots of the Greek immigrant in America and an intersexed child growing up were woven as complex and beautiful as a strand of DNA.
Paperback: 529 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2002)