book review · jeffrey eugenides

Book Review: “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides

ImageI took my time with this novel, savoring every page. I had no choice; had I read it any faster I would have missed something important. Clocking in at 529 pages, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex impressed me greatly. If you’ve read the book (or even just the premise) you will understand why I refer to Calliope as a female, as she has been raised in this way and initially identifies as a girl. Any book about hermaphroditism (I think that’s a word, but didn’t find it in the dictionary) isn’t going to be an easy read; the topic is so bizarre and interesting. Of course, the novel would not have been complete or as poignant without the background chapters leading the way to Cal’s androgynous identity.  I felt sympathy for Calliope Stephanides (notice the Greek surname, much like the author’s?) and the troubling childhood she endured not knowing where she belonged in a world set on delineation.

The emotional and physical confusion she faced decades after her grandparent’s union made me cringe with sadness. Although this novel posits a narrative of incest, Desdemona and Lefty’s story is nonetheless one of love. The idea of a brother and sister pretending marriage to gain access to the U.S.A. didn’t disturb me, and the feelings and behaviors they indulged in didn’t strike me as wholly disastrous. Somehow, maybe through Desdemona’s conscience and prayers I sensed there would be a happy ending to the story. Desdemona’s apprehension and guilt over her/their unclean actions made me hurt for her especially, but I laughed when she became concerned early in the book that she would give birth to some kind of alien child. I understood both Desdemona and Lefty’s desperate determination to leave their dying country and make better lives for themselves and their eventual families.

As a young girl, Calliope tried boys on for size but found they didn’t fit. I believe she wholeheartedly tried to like and connect with them emotionally and sexually, but the normal fascination with the “opposite” sex was not present for her. When it came time to experiment with girls she found her desire aroused in the mysterious Object. However, that romance, as awkward and reciprocal as it seemed, was not to be. Of course Calliope was devastated when the Object left the picture, causing her to fumble further for the slightest grasp of her identity. The stint at Sixty-Niners was beautifully conveyed, as Calliope fell into the nightly ritual of discovering what she had to physically offer the world. I applauded her bravery in becoming “the God Hermaphroditus”; while reading this section of the novel I sensed things were falling into place for her, finally. Cal’s friendship/relationship with Julie Kikuchi reminded me that some people will love us no matter what our past reveals—simply because they’re more interested in the future. I got the feeling that perhaps Cal and Julie had a fulfilling relationship on some level, even if it wasn’t excessively sexual.

I tend to enjoy highly improbable (or rare) events being depicted in fiction. Stories of mentally/physically challenging lifestyles make me appreciate how normal I really am. I never had to worry about finding myself through gender exploration; the biological, mental, and emotional road map was there—complete—and I can’t imagine the struggles faced by those with more ambiguous plans. However, the story of Calliope Stephanides brought me the insight I was lacking previously. The fact that this book tells a clinical story from a fictional standpoint makes it all the more important. Mr. Eugenides filled this novel’s characters with humble human qualities, avoiding what could have been a sanitized version of events in the Stephanides family. I never felt I was reading a sensational case study of Calliope Stephanides; I was just reading the thoughts and family history of a young woman on the way to literally finding herself. I highly recommend this novel if you’re curious about gender and sexual identity; the novel is wonderfully written and has cemented Mr. Eugenides as one of my favorite authors.


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