Sunday, January 2, 2011

CBRIII Book 3: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex is a sprawling coming-of-age tale of Cal Stephanides, a Greek-American who was born and raised in Detroit in the 1960s. That's the simplest description of the book that I can come up with. But there's more to the novel, and more to the protagonist as well: Cal is a hermaphrodite (this isn't spoiling anything to mention it) who was raised as a girl named Callie. In order to tell his life story, Cal has to start at the very beginning - when his grandparents Lefty and Desdemona fled Smyrna in the 1920s to start a new life in America (while guarding a dark secret). His story continues with his parents Tessie and Milton and their struggles to conceive a daughter, which leads to his own story of growing up and trying to figure out exactly who and what he is.

It's going to be hard to discuss this book without mentioning more specific details. So I'm going to go ahead and state that if you have not read it, be warned: spoilers abound from here on.


I could not put this book down. That's the highest praise I can give for any book - well, that and the fact that phrases from it have stuck with me. Eugenides takes a fascinating subject - hermaphroditism - and sets it in a fully-fleshed-out world of Greek immigrants and middle class Detroit denizens. The book could have easily veered into "freak-of-the-week" territory, but Eugenides avoids that by making Cal a very realistic character. You feel his sense of wonder as he ponders about his grandparents - about the choice they made and the repercussions of that choice that echo down the generations in Cal's very genes.

And that choice I mention is, of course, their decision to hide the fact that they are brother and sister. They marry and begin a family together, despite Desdemona's fears that their children will be punished for their sin. I've always been fascinated by moral quandaries - what keeps someone from doing something that's wrong or bad? In this case, Lefty & his wife were tempted by the fact that no one would ever know the truth.

Like I said, the book is more than just a coming-of-age tale. It presents a good depiction of the life of immigrants in the early 20th century, and it frames the story of the Stephanides family in the story of the rise and fall of Detroit. But beyond all of that, i's also a discussion of nature vs. nurture. Obviously, genetics plays a major role in Cal's intersexed condition. (I don't think "condition" is the right word I'm looking for, but I'm at a loss.) But nurture is very important too. Cal was raised as a girl, and he faces a tough decision - does he ignore everything that science would tell him and continue as Callie, or does he embrace his genetic destiny at the cost of changing everything he's ever known?

My one qualm with the book would be the revelation of Lefty and Desdemona's incest. It's implied that this is the reason for the genetic anomaly that causes Cal's hermaphroditism, which makes it a big deal, in my opinion. I was expecting a big dramatic scene where Desdemona confesses her secret to the family, but she only mentions it to Cal, and it's revealed and then dropped over a few paragraphs. But maybe I missed the point of it all. Maybe that was what Eugenides was trying to say - that in the end, it wasn't very important because it wasn't the only influence in Cal's life - he wasn't bound to his genetic destiny any more than his grandmother was bound to her shameful secret. He was free to live his life as he chose, no matter what his karyotype might say. Or maybe I'm finding answers that aren't really there. Either way, I think that Cal's story is going to stay with me for a while.

1 comment:

  1. I just finished this book a few months ago. It was the last book of my CBR-II run. Eugenides is a great author; really knows how to tell a story and make it beautiful.

    I have to say, though, that I found it difficult not to think of Cal as "she" throughout most of the book. I think that is mostly because that's how Callie is thinking of herself. I think it's to Eugenides' credit that he's able to get the reader to switch from "her" to "him" along with Cal(lie) -- we see things through her, and then his, eyes.

    Great book, and a great review. Well done, mel!! :)