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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »
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    Juliet's Nurse

    Lois Leveen 9781476757445

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Middlesex

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Middlesex Cover

ISBN13: 9780312422158
ISBN10: 0312422156
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

The Silver Spoon

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. Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study, "Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites," published in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology in 1975. Or maybe you've seen my photograph in chapter sixteen of the now sadly outdated Genetics and Heredity. That's me on page 578, standing naked beside a height chart with a black box covering my eyes.

My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver's license (from the Federal Republic of Germany) records my first name simply as Cal. I'm a former field hockey goalie, longstanding member of the Save-the-Manatee Foundation, rare attendant at the Greek Orthodox liturgy, and, for most of my adult life, an employee of the U.S. State Department. Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other. I've been ridiculed by classmates, guinea-pigged by doctors, palpated by specialists, and researched by the March of Dimes. A redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe fell in love with me, not knowing what I was. (Her brother liked me, too.) An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into myth; I've left my body in order to occupy others — and all this happened before I turned sixteen.

But now, at the age of forty-one, I feel another birth coming on. After, decades of neglect, I find myself thinking about departed great-aunts and -uncles, long-lost grandfathers, unknown fifth cousins, or, in the case of an inbred family like mine, all those things in one. And so before it's too late I want to get it down for good: this roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time. Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother's own mid-western womb.

Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That's genetic, too.

* * * * *

Three months before I was born, in the aftermath of one of our elaborate Sunday dinners, my grandmother Desdemona Stephanides ordered my brother to get her silkworm box. Chapter Eleven had been heading toward the kitchen for a second helping of rice pudding when she blocked his way. At fifty-seven, with her short, squat figure and intimidating hairnet, my grandmother was perfectly designed for blocking people's paths. Behind her in the kitchen, the day's large female contingent had congregated, laughing and whispering. Intrigued, Chapter Eleven leaned sideways to see what was going on, but Desdemona reached out and firmly pinched his cheek. Having regained his attention, she sketched a rectangle in the air and pointed at the ceiling. Then, through her ill-fitting dentures, she said, "Go for yia yia, dolly mou."

Chapter Eleven knew what to do. He ran across the hall into the living room. On all fours he scrambled up the formal staircase to the second floor. He raced past the bedrooms along the upstairs corridor. At the far end was a nearly invisible door, wallpapered over like the entrance to a secret passageway. Chapter Eleven located the tiny doorknob level with his head and, using all his strength, pulled it open. Another set of stairs lay behind it. For a long moment my brother stared hesitantly into the darkness above, before climbing, very slowly now, up to the attic where my grandparents lived.

In sneakers he passed beneath the twelve damply newspapered birdcages suspended from the rafters. With a brave face he immersed himself in the sour odor of the parakeets, and in my grandparents' own particular aroma, a mixture of mothballs and hashish. He negotiated his way past my grandfather's book-piled desk and his collection of rebetika records. Finally, bumping into the leather ottoman and the circular coffee table made of brass, he found my grandparents' bed and, under it, the silkworm box.

Carved from olivewood, a little bigger than a shoe box, it had a tin lid perforated by tiny airholes and inset with the icon of an unrecognizable saint. The saint's face had been rubbed off, but the fingers of his right hand were raised to bless a short, purple, terrifically self-confident-looking mulberry tree. After gazing awhile at this vivid botanical presence, Chapter Eleven pulled the box from under the bed and opened it. Inside were the two wedding crowns made from rope and, coiled like snakes, the two long braids of hair, each tied with a crumbling black ribbon. He poked one of the braids with his index finger. Just then a parakeet squawked, making my brother jump, and he closed the box, tucked it under his arm, and carried it downstairs to Desdemona.

She was still waiting in the doorway. Taking the silkworm box out of his hands, she turned back into the kitchen. At this point Chapter Eleven was granted a view of the room, where all the women now fell silent. They moved aside to let Desdemona pass and there, in the middle of the linoleum, was my mother. Tessie Stephanides was leaning back in a kitchen chair, pinned beneath the immense, drum-tight globe of her pregnant belly. She had a happy, helpless expression on her face, which was flushed and hot. Desdemona set the silkworm box on the kitchen table and, opened the lid. She reached under the wedding crowns and the hair braids to come up with something Chapter Eleven hadn't seen: a silver spoon. She tied a piece of string to the spoon's handle. Then, stooping forward, she dangled the spoon over my mother's swollen belly. And, by extension, over me.

Up until now Desdemona had had a perfect record: twenty-three correct guesses. Shed known that Tessie was going to be Tessie. She'd predicted the sex of my brother and of all the babies of her friends at church. The only children whose genders she hadn't divined were her own, because it was bad luck for a mother to plumb the mysteries of her own womb. Fearlessly, however, she plumbed my mother's. After some initial hesitation, the spoon swung north to south, which meant that I was going to be a boy.

Splay-legged in the chair, my mother tried to smile. She didn't want a boy. She had one already. In fact, she was so certain I was going to be a girl that she'd picked out only one name for me: Calliope. But when my grandmother shouted in Greek, "A boy!" the cry went around the room, and out into the hall, and across the hall into the living room where the men were arguing politics. And my mother, hearing it repeated so many times, began to believe it might be true.

As soon as the cry reached my father, however, he marched into the kitchen to tell his mother that, this time at least, her spoon was wrong. "And how you know so much?" Desdemona asked him. To which he replied what many Americans of his generation would have:

"It's science, Ma."

* * * * *

Ever since they had decided to have another child — the diner was doing well and Chapter Eleven was long out of diapers — Milton and Tessie had been in agreement that they wanted a daughter. Chapter Eleven had just turned five years old. He'd recently found a dead bird in the yard, bringing it into the house to show his mother. He liked shooting things, hammering things, smashing things, and wrestling with his father. In such a masculine household, Tessie had begun to feel like the odd woman out and saw herself in ten years' time imprisoned in a world of hubcaps and hernias. My mother pictured a daughter as a counterinsurgent: a fellow lover of lapdogs, a seconder of proposals to attend the Ice Capades. In the spring of 1959, when discussions of my fertilization got under way, my mother couldn't foresee that women would soon be burning their brassieres by the thousand. Hers were padded, stiff, fire-retardant. As much as Tessie loved her son, she knew there were certain things she'd be able to share only with a daughter.

On his morning drive to work, my father had been seeing visions of an irresistibly sweet, dark-eyed little girl. She sat on the seat beside him — mostly during stoplights — directing questions at his patient, all-knowing ear. "What do you call that thing, Daddy?" 'That? That's the Cadillac seal." "What's the Cadillac seal?" "Well, a long time ago, there was a French explorer named Cadillac, and he was the one who discovered Detroit. And that seal was his family seal, from France." "What's France?" "France is a country in Europe." "What's Europe?" "It's a continent, which is like a great big piece of land, way, way bigger than a country. But Cadillacs don't come from Europe anymore, kukla. They come from right here in the good old U.S.A." The light turned green and he drove on. But my prototype lingered. She was there at the next light and the next. So pleasant was her company that my father, a man loaded with initiative, decided to see what he could do to turn his vision into reality.

Thus: for some time now, in the living room where the men discussed politics, they had also been discussing the velocity of sperm. Peter Tatakis, "Uncle Pete" as we called him, was a leading member of the debating society that formed every week on our black love seats. A lifelong bachelor, he had no family in America and so had become attached to ours. Every Sunday he arrived in his wine-dark Buick, a tall, prune-faced, sad-seeming man with an incongruously vital head of wavy hair. He was not interested in children. A proponent of the Great Books series — which he had read twice — Uncle Pete was engaged with serious thought and Italian opera. He had a passion, in history, for Edward Gibbon, and, in literature, for the journals of Madame de Staël. He liked to quote that witty lady's opinion on the German language, which held that German wasn't good for conversation because you had to wait to the end of the sentence for the verb, and so couldn't interrupt. Uncle Pete had wanted to become a doctor, but the "catastrophe" had ended that dream. In the United States, he'd put himself through two years of chiropractic school, and now ran a small office in Birmingham with a human skeleton he was still paying for in installments. In those days, chiropractors had a somewhat dubious reputation. People didn't come to Uncle Pete to free up their kundalini. He cracked necks, straightened spines, and made custom arch supports out of foam rubber. Still, he was the closest thing to a doctor we had in the house on those Sunday afternoons. As a young man he'd had half his stomach surgically removed, and now after dinner always drank a Pepsi-Cola to help digest his meal. The soft drink had been named for the digestive enzyme pepsin, he sagely told us, and so was suited to the task.Copyright 2002 by Jeffrey Eugenides

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 27 comments:

camjam, January 1, 2013 (view all comments by camjam)
Best book I've read in quite awhile!
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lechatnoir, August 4, 2012 (view all comments by lechatnoir)
I actually listened to this book during my daily 3-mile walks, rather than read it in traditional book form, but all the same, it got to the point where I simply could not tear myself away from it. I was adding time to my walks, listening to it while working around the house, and generally not getting a lot of other things done just so that I could listen longer! Calliope's story is original, compelling and brilliantly narrated against a cultural backdrop that is in many ways foreign to me, yet utterly familiar in the depth of its humanity. An absolute must-read.
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zoeladyfletcher, July 15, 2012 (view all comments by zoeladyfletcher)
I started reading this with an open mind and I finished with an open heart. Raw, powerful writing drives you through a life uniquely lived. Eugenides puts his arm around you and escorts you through pain, love and acceptance.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780312422158
Subtitle:
A Novel
Author:
Eugenides, Jeffrey
Publisher:
Picador
Location:
New York
Subject:
General
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Teenagers
Subject:
Gender identity
Subject:
Hermaphroditism
Subject:
Domestic fiction
Subject:
Greek Americans
Subject:
Detroit
Subject:
Grosse Pointe
Subject:
General Fiction
Subject:
Bildungsromans
Subject:
General Fiction
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st Picador ed.
Edition Description:
Trade Paperback
Series Volume:
98-13
Publication Date:
September 16, 2003
Binding:
Electronic book text in proprietary or open standard format
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
544
Dimensions:
8.25 x 5.50 in

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Middlesex Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$8.50 In Stock
Product details 544 pages Picador USA - English 9780312422158 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

This engrossing Pulitzer Prize-winner is the utterly amazing story of a hermaphrodite. It is so emotionally accurate and insightful that it reads like a memoir. It's also laugh-out-loud funny. Beautifully written and remarkable in its scope and accomplishment, Middlesex is a breathtaking masterpiece!

"Review" by , "[A]n uproarious epic, at once funny and sad, about misplaced identities and family secrets....Mr. Eugenides has a keen sociological eye for 20th-century American life."
"Review" by , "It's a gas, a romp, the cat's pajamas....The convolutions of the novel's plot, its big gestures, its deftly handled threads of imagery and symbolism and its wealth of detail combine to produce a largely delightful read."
"Review" by , "Middlesex isn't just a respectable sophomore effort; it's a towering achievement, and it can now be stated unequivocally that Eugenides' initial triumph wasn't a one-off or a fluke. He has emerged as the great American writer that many of us suspected him of being."
"Review" by , "[I]t's off proportionally, both section-to-section and overall, its two halves at odds, each interesting at times but neither truly satisfying, despite Eugenides's prodigious talent. Like Cal, it's damned by its own abundance, not quite sure what it wants to be." (read the entire Atlantic review)
"Review" by , "Middlesex vibrates with wit....A virtuosic combination of elegy, sociohistorical study, and picaresque adventure: altogether irrestistable."
"Review" by , "Here's your heads-up....Yes, it's that good....A novel of chance, family, sex, surgery, and America, it contains multitudes."
"Review" by , “In his second novel, the author once again proves himself to be a wildly imaginative writer....Likely to hold readers in thrall with its affecting characterizations of a brave and lonely soul and its vivid depiction of exactly what it means to be both male and female.”
"Review" by , "Eugenides proves that he is not only a unique voice in modern literature but also well versed in the nature of the human heart. Highly recommended."
"Synopsis" by , The Pulitzer Prize-winning story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American family who travel from a tiny village. Calliope is not like other girls and must 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.
"Synopsis" by , In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides, a student at a girls' school in Grosse Pointe, finds herself drawn to a chain-smoking, strawberry blond classmate with a gift for acting. The passion that furtively develops between them — along with Callie's failure to develop physically — leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. In fact, she is not really a girl at all.

The explanation for this shocking state of affairs is a rare genetic mutation — and a guilty secret — that have followed Callie's grandparents from the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Prohibition-era Detroit and beyond, outlasting the glory days of the Motor City, the race riots of 1967, and the family's second migration, into the foreign country known as suburbia. Thanks to the gene, Callie is part girl, part boy. And even though the gene's epic travels have ended, her own odyssey has only begun.

Spanning eight decades — and one unusually awkward adolescence — Jeffrey Eugenides's long-awaited second novel is a grand, original fable of crossed bloodlines, the intricacies of gender, and the deep, untidy promptings of desire.

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