Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides published in 2002. The book is a bestseller, with more than four million copies sold since its publication. Its characters and events are loosely based on aspects of Eugenides’ life and observations of his Greek heritage. It is not an autobiography; unlike the protagonist, Eugenides is not intersex. The author decided to write Middlesex after he read the 1980 memoir Herculine Barbin and was dissatisfied with its discussion of intersex anatomy and emotions.
Primarily a coming-of-age story (Bildungsroman) and family saga, the novel chronicles the effect of a mutated gene on three generations of a Greek family, causing momentous changes in the protagonist’s life. According to scholars, the novel’s main themes are nature versus nurture, rebirth, and the differing experiences of what society constructs as polar opposites—such as those found between men and women. It discusses the pursuit of the American Dream and explores gender identity. The novel contains many allusions to Greek mythology, including creatures such as the Minotaur, half-man and half-bull, and the Chimera, a monster composed of various animal parts.
Narrator and protagonist Cal Stephanides (initially called “Callie”) is an intersex man of Greek descent with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which causes him to have certain feminine traits. The first half of the novel is about Cal’s family and depicts his grandparents’ migration from Bursa, a city in Asia Minor, to the United States in 1922. It follows their assimilation into U.S. society in Detroit, Michigan, then a booming industrial city. The latter half of the novel, set in the late 20th century, focuses on Cal’s experiences in his hometown of Detroit and his escape to San Francisco, where he comes to terms with his modified gender identity.
Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Book Review considered Middlesex one of the best books of 2002, and some scholars believed the novel should be considered for the title of Great American Novel. Generally, reviewers felt that the novel succeeded in portraying its Greek immigrant drama and were also impressed with Eugenides’ depiction of his hometown of Detroit—praising him for his social commentary. Reviewers from the medical, gay, and intersex communities mostly praised Middlesex, though some intersex commentators have been more critical. In 2007, the book was featured in Oprah’s Book Club.
“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.” And so begins Middlesex, the mesmerizing saga of a near-mythic Greek American family and the “roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time.” The odd but utterly believable story of Cal Stephanides, and how this 41-year-old hermaphrodite was raised as Calliope, is at the tender heart of this long-awaited second novel from Jeffrey Eugenides, whose elegant and haunting 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides, remains one of the finest first novels of recent memory.
Eugenides weaves together a kaleidoscopic narrative spanning 80 years of a stained family history, from a fateful incestuous union in a small town in early 1920s Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit; from the early days of Ford Motors to the heated 1967 race riots; from the tony suburbs of Grosse Pointe and a confusing, aching adolescent love story to modern-day Berlin. Eugenides’s command of the narrative is astonishing. He balances Cal/Callie’s shifting voices convincingly, spinning this strange and often unsettling story with intelligence, insight, and generous amounts of humor:
Emotions, in my experience aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” … I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.
When you get to the end of this splendorous book, when you suddenly realize that after hundreds of pages you have only a few more left to turn over, you’ll experience a quick pang of regret knowing that your time with Cal is coming to a close, and you may even resist finishing it–putting it aside for an hour or two, or maybe overnight–just so that this wondrous, magical novel might never end. –Brad Thomas Parsons
Top customer reviews
With engaging erudition rendered in a unique voice, Jeffrey Eugenides displays his, at the time, evolving talent as a novelist in this monumental undertaking. Describing the emergence of an early 20th Century Greek family which subsequently expands into a generational saga, and with our protagonist being the narrator, this work combines an abounding array of anectodal conditions with stunning human drama to form an enlightening and expository historical novel.
Eugenides, taking on the guise of Callie Stephanides an American born hermaphrodite, tells a story of the American ideal…Europeans coming to the New World with limited expectations but grand hopes. Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides, biologically brother and sister, survive the 1922 Great Smyrna Fire, which destroyed the now eastern Turkish city of Izmir, and fraudulently gain access to passage which exports them to America. There, from New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty, they make their way to Detroit and begin to procreate a lineage of Greek-strong migrants. Callie is a third generational offspring who becomes Cal, a man and United States Ambassador. Cal’s childhood though is rendered as “Callie,” a hermaphrodite, who is Eugenides engine for this story. Acting as a girl for her entire youth, Eugenides describes the inherent difficulties that she faces as an hermaphroditic offspring…both biological and psychological.
Couched in turbulent 1960s Detroit, we follow Callie as she struggles mightily with her identity. Espousing virtually all there is to know about this condition, Eugenides combines exacting, almost excruciating, research with the emotional drama of a child unexpectedly realizing that her sex is ambiguous. In episode after episode, we watch as Callie slowly realizes her dilemma and her subsequent efforts to rationalize it. Discarding parental and family emotions, she becomes a “he” while experiencing the expected hardships associated with such a life changing move. Deep and sometimes flawed personal insights abound as this transformation slowly grows. We’re, at the end, left with Cal, the man and principal combatant who becomes the literal hero of the work.
Although sometimes overwhelming and unnecessarily provocative, this work is nonetheless a tour de force. Combining exquisite history with an understated but informative voice, “Middlesex,” although of a quality below that of a Pulitzer Prize winner (which this work actually won in 2003) in my opinion, is nevertheless an engaging and exhortative read…full of illuminating and nuanced refinement. When undertaking this though, be committed to a long but not totally unrewarded experience.