Book Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
“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.” – Calliope/Cal Stephanides
A vast family epic that spans three generations that takes place in the slopes of Mt. Olympus; to the fiery shores of Smyrna; to the uncertainty of the sea; to the pseudo-welcome of America and the Statue of Liberty; to the train stations of New York and Detroit; to downtown Detroit; to suburban Detroit; to New York again, this time unwelcoming; to the roads of America; to the smoggy welcome of San Francisco; and to the streets of Germany.
Then, in this smorgasbord of places, we become witness to the burning and massacre at Smyrna; to the great immigration to the United States by people that are unwelcome in their homeland; to Prohibition; to the Great Depression; to the birth of the Nation of Islam; to the Second World War; to the Detroit Race Riots; and to the sexual explosion of the 1960s. We, the readers, become witness to all of this and we visit, through our imagination, the places mentioned above through the eyes of Calliope/Cal Stephanides, a hermaphrodite. This is the story of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, more of a family epic than the story of a genetically male hermaphrodite.
It’s really hard to summarize the story with skill and precision especially since I cannot call myself a book reviewer. I also do not want to spoil the events of the story since it is one of the best points of the book. However, I can briefly summarize the whole situation of the Stephanides family. On the first generation, who resided in Asia Minor before migrating to Greece, we have Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides who are brother and sister; third cousins; and eventual incestuous lovers. Their forbidden affair produced Milton and Zoe, the second generation of the Stephanides family. Milton then married his second cousin, Tessie Zismo, and this marriage produced Chapter Eleven, Cal’s brother, and Callie himself.
Eugenides’ ability as a writer is in full display here as he crafts an intricate narrative of the Stephanides family. His narrative techniques as he switches into different styles for different events is exquisite. He created a novel that is supposedly about a hermaphrodite but is really about the immigrant experience of a Greek family told through a hermaphrodite’s eyes. The “hermaphrodite” part of the novel does not even begin until halfway through the books pages but this literary misdirection does not diminish the narrative power of Eugenides. In fact, I loved Middlesex because of how it presented the experiences of a Greek family told through a unique narrator.
This narrator of ours is, in my humble opinion, one of the most unique narrative voices in the history of contemporary literature. We see his evolution from being a girl into being a man. We saw him fall in love with the Obscure Object, one of the most heartbreaking love stories that I have ever read, and then we saw him being separated from the Obscure Object and not see her again. We see Cal struggle with his gender, confused with how his body is developing; run away from home; present her body in exchange for money; and then discover that her father died without seeing her again. Every event is heartbreaking but it is also necessary for Cal, and for the reader, in order for him and us to discover something about ourselves.