With such a bold title, I expected Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to solely touch on the topic of intersex. However, “Middlesex” is so much more than a book about a person’s variation in sexual characteristics. This novel touches on topics such as gender identity, incest, immigration, race, class, and death, among other things.
The majority of this book is a sort of deconstruction of Cal Stephanides’ family history. He narrates his grandparents’ epic love story, from the beginning of their incestuous affair in their home in Asia Minor, to the end of their days as an elderly couple in the United States. He also narrates the story of his parents, also incestuous in its nature. Because his grandparents are brother and sister, and his are parents cousins, Cal inherits from these relationships a special chromosomal condition. The remainder of the book goes into this “condition,” in which Calliope Stephanides becomes Cal.
That small synopses is just a synopsis because this book has so many interesting things going on. For one, Cal’s grandparents’ story is a prime example of the immigrant trope, with the incest aspect serving as a twist. Cal’s father serves as an example of a the family patriarch’s vulnerability in a situation where he cannot control everything around him. All of these contribute to Cal’s life as he responds to his 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. Oh, and this is all happening in the 1960s and 70s, in Detroit of all places.
In terms of gender studies, this book was epic. The book goes back and forth from Cal’s adult life as a male, where he struggles with relationships, to his life as Calliope and her experiences during puberty and her transition into Cal.
Regardless of what gender we encounter Cal in, he is a fantastic narrator. He slips in chromosomal knowledge every now and then, which is a science I know nothing about. However, the chromosomal terms and my lack of familiarity with them helped to bridge the personal and political in Cal’s life, and it highlighted the difficulty we have seeing beyond gender binaries.
The only thing I disliked about Cal as a narrator (which I’ve read in other reviews) is his rambling. There are certain points in the book where it gets a bit dry and difficult to keep reading. However, I really like that the book is so diverse in the topics that it covers. For example, I was not expecting to read about Detroit’s history, including the 1967 riot, in a book that is marketed as a story about gender identity.
This book is definitely an epic in its own right. I’m giving it four out of five stars.