by Jeffrey Eugenides
Summary: 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 1967 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.
Source: I purchased a paperback.
Middlesex is quite the modern classic and has won many distinguished awards. I enjoyed The Virgin Suicides by the author, so I was intrigued enough to purchase a copy of the book. I decided to read it during the crazy bathroom debate surrounding transgender people, as it seemed like the perfect time to crack open a book that dealt with gender to some degree.
Middlesex was about Cal, a man who was originally born as a girl and later discovered she was a hermaphrodite and decided to live the remainder of life as a man. He began the story with his grandparents as he was tracing the gene that led to his predicament. The book was an epic story, as one would expect with a muse narrator named Calliope with Greek origins, especially as the book took place during so many major historical events.
It’s difficult to decide how I feel about the book overall. It was an interesting story and I enjoyed the ride through Detroit during the Prohibition, through the race riots, watching Detroit change as the characters made their way to the suburbs to escape the violence and destruction of the city. I also enjoyed how the characters weren’t native to the area, but didn’t identify with minorities. As Greeks, they were basically white, yet not the all-American people that fit into the society, making their experiences quite unique. I was also eager to find out what would happen to Cal/Calliope and was eager to see the story finally go through her own childhood and her discovery.
However, Calliope’s own story didn’t quite grip me the way her grandparent’s and parent’s story did. While I liked seeing her grow up, she wasn’t at all aware there was something wrong with her. While she caught herself becoming interested more in girls as she grew and she noticed some changes as she went through puberty, nothing really seemed all that out of place considering her circumstance. Her decision to live life as a man was abrupt and not nearly as well explored as literally every other event in the entire book. Reviewers have said that her interest in women and her concerns over not developing were sure signs, but I disagree. I feel like any woman who has been interested in the same sex would have gone through it and never question their own gender. Apart from the interest in girls, I think every adolescent girl goes through the self conscious stage of puberty, wondering if you’re ever going to develop, comparing yourself to others, measuring your normalcy against the milestones of your peers.
Slight spoiler: She had a consult with a doctor who never explained what would happen should she choose to “remain” female or go the other route and she just glimpsed at the notes the doctor had and was scared enough to flee and decide to be a man.
Sexual attraction and gender identity aren’t the same things, nor would I equate worrying over development and feeling a tad out of place in your body as a teenager with gender identity issues, so I’m just a bit disappointed that a story ABOUT a hermaphrodite wouldn’t have better explored it.
My other issue with the book is that it involved a lot more incest and strange sexual encounters than I would ever consider normal, despite knowing that small villages often had issues with mixing genes because people ended up being related in some fashion. The way everyone was related was kind of odd, out of place, and not something I expected in a modern tale.
The book was interesting and it certainly brought up a lot of valid points about society, gender, race, politics, and people in general. I enjoyed it and I think it would be a good book club book or discussion piece. However, I don’t think it’s nearly as amazing as people claim and I don’t really understand the hype. It was good, but I still don’t think it did what I originally thought it would do based on the synopsis and I think that whole portion of the book was lacking.
This book could be seen as brilliant because it’s about transition on so many levels, so the title Middlesex is perfect. However, it’s basically just a Forrest Gump journey through important events mashed with everything we already know about Greeks based on movies, and a dash of “let’s add in a hermaphrodite so I can throw him in this pool in a freak show and figure the rest out” and connect it all together.