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Dec. 10, 2004

An enchanting "Middlesex"

by Grace Harter, Page Editor
Calliope Stephanides, the protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides's novel "Middlesex", is not like other girls in her town. For one, her family's rich Greek culture sets her apart from all the other white-bread students of her school. Secondly, she often views the world with fanciful and poetic eyes (at some point, she apologizes for being "Homeric”), comparing herself to characters from Greek mythology and concluding that all incidents in her life have been caused by fate. And lastly, she is not quite a girl.

"I was born twice,” our narrator intones in the opening line. "First, as a baby girl...and then again, as a teenage boy.” So starts the tale of Callie (or "Cal” as he is called later in life) as he tells us of his journey of self-discovery in retro-America. Cal is a hermaphrodite, a person born with a mix of female and male parts to his/her body. If not detected when they're born, hermaphrodites resemble one sex or the other until puberty, when they either begin maturing into the opposite sex or they don't seem to go through puberty at all. Cal's condition is not detected until she is 14 years old. The discovery of Cal's true sex goes unnoticed for so long because of the limited information provided at that time about human sexuality. Cal is unaware of the ambiguity of her sexual organs until she is involved in an accident, and a doctor notices the obvious difference between her and other girls. Until that point, she is extremely confused about her place and identity in the world. She never feels at home in her body; perhaps because it is the body of a boy, not a girl.

It seems appropriate that Cal should be Greek; the word hermaphrodite comes from a Greek legend in which the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, Hermaphroditus, is suddenly changed into half-woman, half-man when he is attacked by a water nymph. Cal also tells his story in the style of the ancient Greek poets; he is omnipresent, even though the story is told in first-person.

"Middlesex" not only tells the tale of Cal but also of the average immigrant American's experience in the first half of this century. The book starts around 1920 and ends in the 1970s. Descriptive historical data concerning "all-American" things like fast-food chains, factories and cars are spaced throughout the novel. The novel educates the reader on the history of America while spinning an enchanting story.

"Middlesex" weaves an intricate pattern of history that spans two continents, taking its characters from World War I-era Turkey to America and then on to Germany, where Cal finally settles down. The book begins in a small village with the story of Cal's grandparents, two Greek siblings who escape from Turkey to America. The brother and sister find it easy to pretend they are not related to each other and get married. Their incestuous relationship results in the passing of the gene that causes Cal's gender confusion.

The reader can identify with young Callie's struggles to define who she is in comparison to her contemporaries. Though very few people grapple with issues such as gender identification, everyone can relate to the feelings of exclusion and isolation that often come along with puberty and growing up. Callie is just trying to discover who she is, though probably in a more extreme sense than most of us.

Eugenides deftly crafts this tale of a person on his (or her) way to self-discovery. The language of the book is beautiful and poetic, and even the descriptions of ordinary American cities are colorful. Eugenides also injects this serious work with a good dose of wit and humor; even the title is a clever pun (Cal grew up in a house called Middlesex). Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this book is a must-read by all those that consider themselves serious readers.



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