Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review of "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides




Calliope (Cal) Stephanides, born after World War II, was raised as a girl until the teenage years. Then, at 14, puberty kicked in and Cal matured into a boy. Doctors found that Cal was a hermaphrodite with male (XY) sex chromosomes, intersex genitals, and a recessive genetic mutation that messes with the sex hormones.

But Cal's story (and genetic troubles) started long before, in 1922, when his Greek grandparents lived in Smyrna, Turkey. Unable to find suitable mates a brother and sister - Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides - fell in love. Driven out of Smyrna by a Turkish rebellion Desdemona and Lefty married on the boat to America, determined to keep their sibling relationship a secret.

Unfortunately Desdemona and Lefty each carried one copy of the mutated gene that would eventually cause Cal's troubles. But this sprawling novel - in turns dramatic, funny, and tragic - is much more than the story of a hermaphrodite. It tells of life in Smyrna, the experiences of Greek immigrants in Detroit, arranged marriages, complicated family interactions and intermarriages, the silk industry, riots in Smyrna and Detroit, the rise of Islam and black power in the United States, and much more.

At the heart of the book is Cal's fascinating trajectory. Always feeling that something was wrong, Cal was an awkward girl who fell in love with a female classmate, had first sex with a boy, and was devastated when her "male" condition was revealed. Cal has a dramatic reaction to this revelation which leads to the book's climax. Definitely a book worth reading.

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