Middlesex

Middlesex

Book Club Kit - 2002 | Vintage Canada edition, 2003
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The first words of Jeffrey Eugenides exuberant and capacious novel Middlesex take us right to the heart of its unique narrator: "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."

Middlesex is the story of Cal or Calliope Stephanides, a comic epic of a family's American life, and the expansive history of a gene travelling down through time, starting with a rare genetic mutation. In 1922, Desdemona and Eleutherios ("Lefty") Stephanides, brother and sister, leave the war-ravaged village of Bithynios in Asia Minor. With their parents dead and their village almost empty, Desdemona and Lefty have gradually been drawn closer together and fallen in love. As the Turks invade and the Greeks abandon the port of Smyrna, Lefty and Desdemona -- Callie's grandparents -- escape to reinvent themselves as a married couple in America.

Jeffrey Eugenides recounts the Stephanides family's experiences over the next fifty years with gusto and delight. Upon their arrival in Detroit, Lefty goes to work at the Ford motor plant and the couple live with Desdemona's cousin Sourmelina -- a woman with her own secrets -- and her bootlegging husband Jimmy Zizmo. After Jimmy disappears and the Stephanides' son Milton is born, Lefty opens a speakeasy called the Zebra Room, and Desdemona goes to work tending silkworms for the Nation of Islam.

Milton serves in the Navy in World War II and returns to marry his cousin Tessie, Sourmelina's daughter, and the errant gene comes closer to expression. Milton takes over the family business and they have two children, Calliope and Chapter Eleven, but as their fortunes rise the city's fall, and Detroit is torn by riots with the intensity of warfare. The family moves into a new home called Middlesex in a tony suburb, and Calliope, who had been a beautiful little girl, is sent to private school.

So begins one of the strangest, most affecting adolescences in literature. As time passes Calliope gets taller and gawkier without developing into womanhood. Her classmates' bodies change and they grow interested in boys; Callie remains flat-chested and waits in vain for her first period. And she has a curiously intense friendship with a girl at her school, the beautiful and confident Obscure Object of Desire.

It is only when she has an accident at the Obscure Object's summer house and is examined by an emergency room doctor that Callie and her parents discover that she isn't like other girls. She is referred to an eminent New York doctor who, after extensive physical and psychological testing, pronounces her genetically male: 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome caused her true genital characteristics to remain hidden until puberty. Callie is a hermaphrodite. Since she was raised as a girl, Dr. Luce recommends cosmetic surgery and hormone injections to make her seem more fully female.

But Callie refuses to be something she is not. She runs away, cuts her hair short and hitch-hikes across the country to California, calling him self Cal. And after some difficulties -- and performances in a strip club in San Francisco at the height of sexual liberation -- Cal learns to relish being both male and female. One more unexpected family tragedy, and some old revelations, await in Detroit.

This animated and moving story is narrated by Cal Stephanides, now an American diplomat living in Berlin. While telling us about his past, he fumbles towards a romantic relationship with an artist who might be able to accept him for the unique person he is.
Publisher: Toronto : Knopf Canada, 2002
Edition: Vintage Canada edition, 2003
ISBN: 9780676975659
0676975658
Branch Call Number: BOOK CLUB SETS - E
Characteristics: 10 copies + 1 research guide

Opinion

From Library Staff

Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize winning saga that explores the coming of age transformation of Calliope Stephanide, a hermaphrodite. To understand how Calliope turned into Cal, the protagonist provides a breathtaking narration of three generations of the Stephanides’ family. This book will appeal t... Read More »

Eugenenides' brilliantly constructed novel of gender identity opens with this statement:
"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."

Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize winning saga that explores the coming of age transformation of Calliope Stephanide, a hermaphrodite. To understand how Calliope turned into Cal, the protagonist provides a breathtaking narration of three generations of the Stephanides’ family.

Readers who enjoyed "A Strangeness in My Mind" by Orhan Pamuk may also like this novel, another lyrical and engaging urban coming-of-age story. This novel chronicles the story of a Greek-American family and the young Callie, a hermaphrodite.


From the critics


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b
bookpusher
Jul 15, 2020

So many big Greek names, I struggled getting through it. Actually put it down for about a year.....picked it back up a couple of weeks ago. I won't lie, Part 4 really pissed me off, but the ending was okay

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bell5133
Jun 23, 2020

Overall, it’s an interesting well-researched novel that covers three generations of a family. Most of the book has to do with the narrator’s grandparents, and then the parents. Very little of it has to do with the narrator.
It’s like the author tried to hit all the liberal talking points: culture/refugee/minority status (Greek), incest, hermaphrodites, and lesbians.
I’m surprised that the book didn’t get condemned for being racist, since the book doesn’t speak 100% positively of African Americans.
The back cover said the narrator was like Holden Caulfield, but s/he isn’t at all. Cal conformed to being a girl, and then conformed to being a boy. S/he did not criticize people or society, just conformed to them.
As soon as the narrator finds out she is a hermaphrodite, she immediately conforms to being a boy, even without any prior desire to be a boy. She liked having long hair before. Now: “I’m a boy; gotta cut it all off.”
She had to make herself learn to walk like a boy. Just like the transgenders, Cal can’t just be herself and walk however she wants. She has to conform to a gender role despite never feeling “out of place being a girl” (479).
“Sex is biological. Gender is cultural” (489). I’m glad this book pointed that out. So all the transgenders think they’re changing their sex when all they’re really changing is their gender. And pronouns are supposed to be about sex, not gender. Which bathroom you use is supposed to be about sex, not gender. Getting an artificial penis or vagina surgically inserted doesn’t change the sex you were born as. Nor is that required to wear clothing associated with the opposite sex.

l
lilypad_1
Apr 12, 2020

I found this book to be unending trivialities of a family and mostly the youngest daughter who is a hermaphrodite. If you are very interested in Greek immigration to the US and dysfunctional family this is not the book for you. I was very happy when it ended, only read it because was given to me by neighbor during the time library was closed for the virus. Library, please open again!!!!!

s
sperreault
Apr 06, 2020

This is my current favorite book. While the main character Cal and the issue of intersex persons is interesting, the book is about so much more. It is an epic journey through genocide, the silk trade, Henry Ford, race riots and more. It has humor and heart, while at the same time dealing with some very serious issues.

Meier_HML Jan 22, 2020

I'd like to post a bit of an explanation for my rating that I hope will be informative, but it does not come from a place of scorn. This book is notorious among the Intersex community, and I think it is necessary to elaborate on why the depiction of Callie/Cal here is less than ideal, even if just to supply context to anyone who wishes to read it. This is not, by any means, a dissuasion from picking up the story.

An Intersex person (the 'I' in LGBTQIA+) is someone who is born with chromosomes, gonads, hormones, and/or genitals that do not match the established parameter for 'male' or 'female'. Someone who is Intersex is very likely to experience abuse for their state, most commonly through nonconsensual genital mutilation at birth (IGM). This tends to be disguised as a preventative measure against cancer by pediatric urologists, but barring exceptionally rare cases, the procedure is purely cosmetic. Due to the infant status of the individual, the procedure will leave them with lifelong pain as the area grows, tears, and/or gets infected during its continual use. This harm is added to psychologically by social ostracization and erasure.

Being Intersex is not something that is inherently scarring or harmful. Nor is it synonymous with being Trans, although members of the communities do often overlap. There are certain variations that do require a bit of extra medical care - such as my own variant, salt-wasting congenital adrenal hyperplasia - but the danger of these cases are fearmongered by the lingering tendency to pathologize us with unwanted and inaccurate terms like 'Disorders of Sexual Development'. Intersex people are completely natural, and reportedly as common as people with red hair, with unofficial surveys placing that number even higher; it is very likely that you know, or even are personally, someone who is Intersex.

Jeffrey Eugenides, however, is not Intersex, and the book is written very clearly from this outside perspective. Callie/Cal is written like a member of Greek tragedy, with their variation attributed to things like incest and moral failing. The allusions to the figure Hermaphroditus also bring the connotations of his myth: a young man nonconsensually fused with his stalker by the gods at her request, then left scarred, devastated, and angered by the change. Not someone who is simply born in a way that isn't often talked about.

Sarah Graham wrote a much more thorough deconstruction of this in their 2009 paper "'See Synonyms at MONSTER': En-Freaking Transgender in Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex".

Because of those connotations, Intersex people do not tend to use the word 'hermaphrodite' when referring to themselves or each other, barring very specific individual cases where someone reclaims the term from where it has been used against them in the past.

One such person who reclaims the term is Hida Viloria, who has authored the book "Born Both: An Intersex Life" which I would recommend if you would like a more personal account of someone who has participated in much of our modern advocacy. Hans Lindahl with interACT also creates casual educational videos on the subject, with a much more general, accessible focus.

Again, this is not a plea to dissuade you from reading Middlesex. I do hope that, should you choose to read it, you enjoy the experience! I am only also asking that you keep us in mind as you do, because this is unfortunately a common first introduction to our existence.

One of the best books I've read this decade. Jeffery Eugenides' Middlesex captures an epic journey with fascinating characters in a page-turner of a story. Across three generations and two continents, the magical realist story unfolds with insight about the nature of gender, national identity, and cultures of science and technology. I'm putting this on a shortlist, with books like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, of novels that are both enriching reflections on history and culture and, at the same time, fun enjoyable reads.

g
ginger000
Oct 31, 2019

I listened to the audiobook of Middlesex. The story is so beautifully told. It grabs you from the opening and holds you until the very end. The way the author writes is poetic and extremely visual. You take the journey of Calliope Stephanides and her ancestors right along with them. The sounds are vivid. The landscapes you feel you are walking through with the characters. The colorful characters are your own family by the time you end the book. I HIGHLY recommend this book and if possible the audiobook. The narrator is exquisite.

k
kmcdouall
Aug 02, 2019

A real page-turner family saga, with fascinating characters and locations.

e
EljayJohnson
Jul 20, 2019

I can't say I've read many books featuring a hermaphrodite, so I was intrigued by this and since I'd loved Eugenides' Virgin Suicides, very hopeful that I was in for a treat. Great opening story about the early life of Cal's grandmother and grandfather, and the last 125 pages really took off, but in between those 2 bookends there was a lot of meaningless, meandering, uninteresting stuffing. A pretty unsatisfying ending and some annoying, stupid author choices like calling a couple of characters by descriptive titles rather than names. Can't recommend it.

AnaGM May 22, 2019

One of my favorite books EVER. It's so good. The audio book is also really great.

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britprincess1ajax Feb 26, 2017

"This was 1988. Maybe the time had finally come when anyone—or at least not the same old someones—could be President. Behold the banners at the Democratic Convention! Look at the bumper stickers on all the Volvos. 'Dukakis.' A name with more than two vowels in it running for President! The last time that had happened was Eisenhower (who looked good on a tank). Generally speaking, Americans like their presidents to have no more than two vowels. Truman. Johnson. Nixon. Clinton. If they have more than two vowels (Reagan), they can have no more than two syllables. Even better is one syllable and one vowel: Bush. Had to do that twice. Why did Mario Cuomo decide against running for President? What conclusion did he come to as he withdrew to think the matter through? Unlike Michael Dukakis, who was from academic Massachusetts, Mario Cuomo was from New York and knew what was what. Cuomo knew he’d never win. Too liberal for the moment, certainly. But also: too many vowels."

TSCPL_ChrisB Jun 06, 2016

Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.

SPL_STARR Jun 16, 2015

"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."

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regina123 Aug 03, 2012

regina123 thinks this title is suitable for 17 years and over

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westiestimestwo
Jul 28, 2010

Pulitzer Prize winner

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