Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Long on the ‘to do’ list for reading fiction, I’m delighted to have completed Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/oct/06/fiction.impacprize) over the Easter break 2018. An American novelist and short story writer, Eugenides received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this novel in 2003.

Not many multi-generational American novels are narrated by an omniscient hermaphrodite. Cal Stephanides gets right to the point in the opening sentence. ‘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.’

Cal is baptized Calliope in a Greek Orthodox church on the eastside of Detroit, and for the next 14 years is raised as a girl. The doctor who brings her into the world is a 74-year-old Armenian who came over on the boat with Calliope’s grandparents. Not quite the doctor he once was, he fails to notice that this baby has rather unusual genitals. No one notices, in fact, until Calliope hits puberty and starts to figure out that she is not like the other girls at her all-girl school. She remains flat-chested and has has no first period. With hormones raging, the object of her passionate affection is her redheaded classmate.

Just how Calliope ended up a hermaphrodite and what happens when she finds out is the two-directional story this novel tells. It travels back to Bithynios, a village in eastern Turkey, whence her grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, flee during the 1922 war between the Greeks and the Turks. The two marry aboard the boat to America and keep secret the fact that they are sister and brother. After many generations of cousins marrying cousins in their little village, it is Calliope who bears the brunt of this interbreeding. Desdemona and Lefty end up in Detroit, and their son, Milton, lives out the mid-century American dream as an aspiring clarinet player, World War II vet and successful restauranteur. He marries Tessie, who also happens to be his second cousin. Calliope’s genetic fate is sealed.

A strong feature of this book is its portrait of Detroit over a period of 75 years. Calliope’s grandparents arrive in the midst of Prohibition, and after a very brief stint as a cog in Henry Ford’s industrial machine, Lefty turns to bootlegging. Desdemona, who brought an arcane knowledge of silk production with her from Asia Minor, works for a time within the secret confines of an early incarnation of the Nation of Islam. Milton takes the considerable amount of insurance money he collects when his restaurant burns during the 1967 race riots and heads for the suburb of Grosse Pointe and a house with the suggestive name of Middlesex. It is there, during the 1970s, that Calliope will discover she is really a boy.

A visit to New York Hospital, where sexual disorder and gender identity guru Dr. Peter Luce conducts his research, confirms the worst. But while Calliope displays an XY karotype, which means he is biologically a boy, Dr. Luce decides that he should continue life as the girl he has been raised to be. Cal has other ideas, though. She runs away and meets with a few surprising adventures while trying to figure out exactly who she or he is. Throughout, Cal remains upbeat, levelheaded and wise. It’s as if the ancient wisdom of her Greek forebears has been passed down along with the genetic mutation.

This wry and ultimately wise book says a lot about gender identity, family, adolescence and American values. Funny, poignant and freshly topical since much recent talk about ‘trans’ lifestyles, this is an engaging read. Check if this beautifully written piece of fiction is in stock at your local library by consulting the online catalogue at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH

544 pages in Fourth Estate

Originally published 2002

ISBN  978-0007528646

Jeffrey Eugenides

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