You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, is two stories wrapped up in one novel. The first is a tale of generations of a Greek immigrant family as they settle in Detroit and make a life. The other story is that of Cal, the grandchild of the immigrants. When Cal is born, the elderly doctor at the delivery does not notice the baby's ambiguous genitalia. The parents name their child Calliope and raise her as a girl. When Calliope becomes a teenager and doesn't physically mature, everyone believes she is a late bloomer. It is not until Calliope has an accident and the emergency room doctor notices something that the family takes Callie to a specialist.

But the story starts in western Turkey in 1922. Cal's grandparents are Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides, brother and sister living in a small village in Asia Minor. When the area is filled with turmoil, they escape on a ship to America. On the voyage, they transition from brother and sister to husband and wife. They manage to keep their true relationship secret from everyone except their cousin Sourmalina. This secret is a tragic flaw that ends up affecting their grandchild Cal. The flaw takes the phyical form of a genetic defect due to inbreeding, but encompasses the divided life of immigrants as well as Cal's split male/female nature.

Lefty and Desdemona move in with Sourmalina and her husband Jimmy Zizmo in Detroit. Their relationship isn't perfect, but it is good enough to produce two children. Their son Milton ends up marrying Tessie, the daughter of Sourmalina and Jimmy and his own second cousin. But their relationship is at the cost of Father Mike, an Orthodox priest who was in love with Tessie. Mike is resentful of Milton and the belief that his money helped steal Tessie from him. The whole family is like a Greek drama, with dark secrets and desires.

The story is narrated by Cal as an adult intersex man. He describes his parents' and grandparents' life as well as their thoughts and feelings. This transition into omniscience helps drive the mythological aspect of the story. It is also crucial in narrating Cal's life growing up as a girl. There are flash forwards to Cal's current relationship with a woman, so this keeps us grounded in the knowledge that Cal is currently a man who transformed from a girl. This brings an interesting perspective on Callie's girlhood, even when it isn't explicit it comes out in the style. When he starts trying to behave as a man he remarks at one point that it is not so different from a boy growing up and acting like a man. This insight of the interwoven nature of the sexes is typical of the novel.

When Callie is fourteen she starts to develop feelings for her best friend, an intriguing girl referred to as the Obscure Object. She does not know how to deal with these feelings, not suspecting her true nature. She lets her friend's brother Jerome have sex with her but the sudden pain starts questions, and the truth is soon revealed. In the crisis that follows, Callie must determine her fate, with her dual nature pulling her both ways.

I felt the first half of the book was slow as it builds to Callie's birth, but the stories of the family members have their own fascination. There's the speakeasy that Lefty opens during Prohibition; Desdemona's silk work with the Black Panthers; the Detroit race riots. The silk worms serve as a link to the family's past in Asia Minor, but also as a symbol of fragility and transformation. Milton's beautiful and sexy seduction of Tessie involves playing his clarinet against her body. On a mystical note, Tessie's and Desdemona's attempts to choose and divine Cal's sex in the womb seem to be an attempt to force the hand of fate, which backfires when Cal's sex finally reveals itself. The novel is enjoyable as a story of a family through the years and the personal journey of a young girl's transformation into a man. The characters are fun to watch as they change and grow and clash and love one another. The author blends several themes to make the novel work on many levels. A-

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