Synopses & Reviews
The first words of Jeffrey Eugenides exuberant and capacious novel Middlesex
take us right to the heart of its unique narrator: “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.”
Middlesex is the story of Cal or Calliope Stephanides, a comic epic of a familys American life, and the expansive history of a gene travelling down through time, starting with a rare genetic mutation. In 1922, Desdemona and Eleutherios (“Lefty”) Stephanides, brother and sister, leave the war-ravaged village of Bithynios in Asia Minor. With their parents dead and their village almost empty, Desdemona and Lefty have gradually been drawn closer together and fallen in love. As the Turks invade and the Greeks abandon the port of Smyrna, Lefty and Desdemona -- Callies grandparents -- escape to reinvent themselves as a married couple in America.
Jeffrey Eugenides recounts the Stephanides familys experiences over the next fifty years with gusto and delight. Upon their arrival in Detroit, Lefty goes to work at the Ford motor plant and the couple live with Desdemonas cousin Sourmelina -- a woman with her own secrets -- and her bootlegging husband Jimmy Zizmo. After Jimmy disappears and the Stephanides son Milton is born, Lefty opens a speakeasy called the Zebra Room, and Desdemona goes to work tending silkworms for the Nation of Islam.
Milton serves in the Navy in World War II and returns to marry his cousin Tessie, Sourmelinas daughter, and the errant gene comes closer to expression. Milton takes over the family business and they have two children, Calliope and Chapter Eleven, but as their fortunes rise the citys fall, and Detroit is torn by riots with the intensity of warfare. The family moves into a new home called Middlesex in a tony suburb, and Calliope, who had been a beautiful little girl, is sent to private school.
So begins one of the strangest, most affecting adolescences in literature. As time passes Calliope gets taller and gawkier without developing into womanhood. Her classmates bodies change and they grow interested in boys; Callie remains flat-chested and waits in vain for her first period. And she has a curiously intense friendship with a girl at her school, the beautiful and confident Obscure Object of Desire.
It is only when she has an accident at the Obscure Objects summer house and is examined by an emergency room doctor that Callie and her parents discover that she isnt like other girls. She is referred to an eminent New York doctor who, after extensive physical and psychological testing, pronounces her genetically male: 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome caused her true genital characteristics to remain hidden until puberty. Callie is a hermaphrodite. Since she was raised as a girl, Dr. Luce recommends cosmetic surgery and hormone injections to make her seem more fully female.
But Callie refuses to be something she is not. She runs away, cuts her hair short and hitch-hikes across the country to California, calling himself Cal. And after some difficulties -- and performances in a strip club in San Francisco at the height of sexual liberation -- Cal learns to relish being both male and female. One more unexpected family tragedy, and some old revelations, await in Detroit.
This animated and moving story is narrated by Cal Stephanides, now an American diplomat living in Berlin. While telling us about his past, he fumbles towards a romantic relationship with an artist who might be able to accept him for the unique person he is.
Spanning eight decades and chronicling the wild ride of a Greek-American family through the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, Jeffrey Eugenides’ witty, exuberant novel on one level tells a traditional story about three generations of a fantastic, absurd, lovable immigrant family -- blessed and cursed with generous doses of tragedy and high comedy.
But there’s a provocative twist. Cal, the narrator -- also Callie -- is a hermaphrodite. And the explanation for this takes us spooling back in time, through a breathtaking review of the twentieth century, to 1922, when the Turks sacked Smyrna and Callie’s grandparents fled for their lives. Back to a tiny village in Asia Minor where two lovers, and one rare genetic mutation, set our narrator’s life in motion.
Middlesex is a grand, utterly original fable of crossed bloodlines, the intricacies of gender, and the deep, untidy promptings of desire. It’s a brilliant exploration of divided people, divided families, divided cities and nations -- the connected halves that make up ourselves and our world. Justly acclaimed when it was released in Fall 2002, it announces the arrival of a major writer for our times.
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
1. What was your overall impression of Middlesex
? It is such a diverse and huge read: did you connect more with some parts of the novel than others? Why? If you were to sum up this novel to a friend, what kind of book would you say it is?
2. “Every novelist needs a hermaphroditic imagination,” Jeffrey Eugenides has said. “We have to get into the heads of characters of both sexes, after all. So hermaphroditism is part of the job.” How well does Middlesex relate a girls experience and the voice of the man she grows up to be?
3. Why is Callies brother referred to, throughout the novel, as “Chapter Eleven”?
4. Towards the end of the novel, Cal says “There have been hermaphrodites like me since the world began. But as I came out from my holding pen it was possible that no generation other than my brothers was as well disposed to accept me.” Do you agree? What does Middlesex have to tell us about the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 70s?
5. Orlando by Virginia Woolf, Self by Yann Martel, not to mention the figure of Tiresias in Greek myth: whats so attractive about women who become men (and vice versa) as a literary subject?
6. Middlesex is narrated by Cal, the grown-up version of Callie. As well as describing things that took place long before his birth, he talks of his own present-day experiences in Berlin. Why do you think the novel is narrated in this dual way, switching between the past and the present? Is it effective?
7. Who was your favourite minor character in the book, and who was the least appealing? Jimmy Zizmo? Dr Luce? The Obscure Object? Jerome?
8. Are Callies experiences, in an extreme way, the difficulties of every adolescence -- the confusions of growing up, discovering ones body, ones sexuality and identity? Did anything in Callies teenage years remind you of your own?
9. Which did you enjoy more: the story of the Stephanides family before Callies birth (the 1920s to the 1950s), or after (the 1960s and 1970s)? Why?
10. Whats the significance of place in Middlesex? How do the embattled and divided locations -- Smyrna, Detroit, Berlin -- affect events and inform the characters experiences?
11. Who do you think would get more out of Middlesex: male readers or female readers? Why?
12. What does Middlesex make you think about the idea of normality -- norms of gender identity, sexual identity, class or race. You might think not only of Cal/Callie, but also Sourmelina, the familys experience as immigrants, the riots in Detroit, etc. Does Middlesex suggest that its better to fit in or make ones own path?
13. Whats the importance of fate -- thought of as mythological, romantic, or genetic -- to Middlesex? What about luck, chance and coincidence?
14. Why does Callie choose to be Cal? Do you think its the right thing to do? More generally, what is the significance of personal choice in issues as fundamental as gender and sexuality?
15. Middlesex was exhaustively researched. What do you know about historical hermaphrodites, transvestites, eunuchs, and other challenges to the “traditional” classification of genders? What effect do such people have on what we think men and women are? How are such individuals treated today?
16. Finally, some questions about whats not in the book: How do you think Cals family dealt with him over the few years after his return as a man? What was Cals life like in the 1980s and 1990s? What do you think happens next, once the novel is over: can Cal and Julie Kikuchi find happiness together?