Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (author of The Virgin Suicides), is first and foremost the story of Calliope, a young Greek girl growing up in the suburbs of Michigan, and how at puberty, she becomes Cal, a young Greek boy.
The story spans three generations, starting with Desdemona and Lefty, a brother and sister fleeing Greece during the war with Turkey in 1922. Unfortunately, Desdemona and Lefty are in love with each other, and the anonymity of fleeing their homeland for America gives them the opportunity to start over, as husband and wife. Their story is a sad one, because as Desdemona discovers the dangers of birth defects involved if they have children, she becomes a distant and frustrated wife.
Their son, Milton, is a successful entrepreneur who marries his second cousin, Tessie, sealing Calliope’s fate. Calliope is born with a birth defect, 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphordites, which means that though she appears to be a girl, she has both girl parts and boy parts, though the boy parts are more difficult to see if you’re not looking. It takes a bit of a stretch of the imagination to believe that her doctor wouldn’t notice, that her mother wouldn’t notice while changing her diaper, but since the story isn’t graphic in its detail of the physical abnormality, you can give them a pass. Genetically, though, he’s a boy, with XY chromosomes and a desire for women.
The story travels back and forth across time, as the narrator, 41 year old Cal, tells the story from the beginning, from his grandparents’ love affair and sad marriage, to the success of his father’s hot dog franchise and the race riots of 1967 Detroit, and on to Cal’s own coming of age, his fear of not knowing exactly what was wrong with him, but trying desperately to hide the fact that clearly, something was.
Did I love this book? No. I thought it could have been about 150 pages shorter (it weighed in at 529 pages). Some of the details went on too long for me, and I found myself a little bit bored. It took me quite awhile to read this book, though the second half sucked me in, and I read the last 300 pages in just the last few days, spurred on by today’s letter being “M”. I’m not sure I can recommend this book…like I said, it just didn’t suck me in enough. But anyone interested in trans-gender issues, or in the experience of three generations of a recent immigrant family, might enjoy the book more than I did.