My book club picked Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex for our June meeting. I had read it before, but it had been 5 years, so it was good to re-read it.
Middlesex tells the story of Calliope Stephanides who discovers at age 14 that she is a hermaphrodite or intersexed (I believe this is the preferred term). When she was born, she appeared to be a girl, and through a series of missed opportunities, her condition remained hidden for years. Thus, she was raised as a girl. Once she enters puberty, however, she is perplexed to discover that she is not only NOT developing like other girls but also having romantic feelings for girls. An accident leads to a trip to the emergency room where her condition is finally revealed. Genetic testing indicates that Callie is in fact genetically a boy. The doctor urges Callie to continue living as a girl, believing that nurture has overpowered nature. Callie realizes that this is false, and Callie becomes Cal.
It may seem that I just gave away the plot of the book but dear reader, I assure you that I haven’t. You know from the beginning that Calliope is a hermaphrodite and in a way, Calliope’s story isn’t really the main story. The main story could be the experience of his/her Greek grandparents in Turkey and their immigration to the United States in the 20s. It could be the story of her parents growing up in the 30s and 40s, their developing relationship and subsequent life together. It could be the story of Detroit over a 60-year period. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about genetics and what we inherit. It’s a story about fate or destiny vs. free will. It’s a story about geography as place. It’s a story about women’s roles, cultural identity and what we hide and what we reveal. In short, there is so much going on in this book that it would be impossible to neatly summarize all the plot elements.
I don’t think I enjoyed this book when I read it 5 years ago, but I really enjoyed it the second time around. I wonder how much of that is due to being 5 years older and having a different perspective than I did as a 25-year-old. This book is especially well-suited for a book club because it is so deep and rich that it benefits from discussion, and I liked it even more after my book club met to discuss it. I’m still turning bits of it around in my head days later.
Callie’s hermaphroditism (is that a word?) is the result of a recessive genetic mutation on the 5th chromosome. Each of her parents provided the gene, so the theme of genetic fate is prominent. The way Cal presents his history starting with his grandparents, it is clear that he believes he was fated to be a hermaphrodite. But I wonder if this is Cal’s opinion revisiting his life and trying to make some sense, some reason for why he was born this way. He appears to view his intersexuality as neither good nor bad but something that just is. It’s just how he was born and how the genetic cards were dealt (gambling and games of chance are another big theme). It’s interesting because from all that I’ve seen on the Discovery Channel (an authoritative source!), many intersexed individuals pick their gender and will undergo surgery in order to become physically the gender they most identify with. Cal remains in a sort of limbo. He identifies as a man, but he also still retains feminine traits. He is lonely, yet he knows that his status dooms many relationships. It’s like he purposely chooses to remain middlesexed. It perplexes me a bit. One theory proposed by my book club was that he doesn’t want to lose the feminine perspective.
It is interesting to ponder what makes us a man or a woman. Is it our genes or is it how we are raised? I suspect it’s more nature than nurture. But it’s also cultural. We seem to have a need as humans for defined genders. I’m a woman or I’m a man, and being unable to categorize someone so neatly results in cognitive dissonance. But who hasn’t felt other than their defined gender at times? I suspect that gender identity is more fluid than we might think. I was not a tomboy as a child. I wore dresses, played with dolls and fantasized about getting married and having babies. But it’s funny because I often feel less feminine, less like a girl than my friends seem to be. I often feel very masculine at work and believe that I am perceived as not very feminine. However, I have a boss who can make me feel like a girl. He and I don’t communicate well sometimes, and when I talk to him about it, I find that I am suddenly talking about feelings and girly things.
Some of the history about Detroit in the book surprised me, and I’m going to need to do a little research. Is it possible that the Detroit Riots were a sort of second American Revolution? Unfortunately, we never reached that part of the 20th century in American history class in high school.
I highly recommend this novel. It is an American classic.