Daily Archives: 06/03/2013

#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

MiddlesexFor some reason this took me weeks to finish.  I didn’t have any other books going on, but this was a slow read for me.

I really liked it.

By the end of the very first paragraph we know that Cal, born Calliope, is a hermaphrodite.  She lives her life as a girl from 1960 – 1974, and then everything changes and she is born again as a teenage boy.

Middlesex is Calliope and Cal’s story.  Cal wants to get his version down before anything changes again, and he thinks something might be starting.

The book is told through three different timelines, although some might argue with me that there are only two.  Cal traces her genetic makeup back to her grandparents, then moves through to her parents and then on to everyone’s realization of that she is a hermaphrodite.  Cal is telling this story when he is in his 40’s, so these two timelines are eventually going to catch up.  However, I felt there was a third – the story of Calliope becoming Cal.  After all, that’s the story we want to know, right?  Yes, Cal wants us to understand the full story how he came to be, but deep down we just want the details of how and when Cal was born.  Who cares about the grandparents and parents?  Get to the good stuff.  At some point you know that 40-something year old Cal is going to get to the part where he is born and for me, this is the third timeline.

Cal is an omniscient narrator claiming that he is able to trace his path backwards and experience his existence as if he was there.  He insists that he was there, since his genetic material came from these people.  He is able to experience their stories and know what is happening, right up until the moment of his conception.

I liked this narrative from his grandparents to his parents, although there were times when it did feel slow.  These two sections did take me the longest to read.  Not only is this the story of how Cal’s genetic makeup was passed along, it is like any other family history – Cal is searching his family to define himself.  That could have been the book right there, and this is a popular genre.  But we know that Cal’s story isn’t about where his family came from, how they got to America, what happened when they arrived and how they assimilated into the melting pot.

What happened when Calliope discovered who he was?

When Calliope hits puberty, the book really took off for me.  (There’s a pun or metaphor or something in there about racing hormones but it’s too hot to be clever right now.)  Calliope knows she’s different, but not why.  She must be a late bloomer, but still… there’s something that just doesn’t seem right.

She keeps herself covered at all times, wishing and hoping that her boobs will magically appear and she’ll finally get her period.  Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret, except Calliope is never going to get her boobs or her period.

She’s fairly content to stay hidden, waiting to finally bloom.  But then… The Obscure Object appears.

The Object does something to Calliope that she cannot explain or understand.  She is immediately blinded by her and becomes nearly frantic to be her friend.  She doesn’t know why the Object has this effect on her, but she wants to be near her all the time.

The two do end up becoming friends and Calliope continues to be confused and enthralled.  She finds herself becoming jealous, but shrugs it off as regular female friendship.  She’s seen plenty of her classmates fight over which friend is talking to which girl.  But still…  something doesn’t seem right.

Calliope begins to feel her body change but still isn’t sure what’s going on.  She and her mother have never spoken of sexual matters, except to acknowledge menstruation.  She knows she has physical feelings, but has nothing to compare it to, so assumes all girls feel the same way.  And yet… there’s still that something.

She eventually winds up in an emergency room while on vacation and there you go.

Calliope takes us to her New York doctor, becomes a pro at hopping up into the stirrups, uses her omniscient narration skills to capture what her mother and father are experiencing, and basically goes where the tide takes her.

Until she is a boy.

Cal’s teenage journey is even more fascinating.  He has to completely invent himself and only has his observations of boys from when he was Calliope.  We watch him transform, experience his confusion, and I ached in those moments where he wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing.

The story continues to weave back and forth.  It never really catches up to the present.  Cal tells us where he is now as an adult and how he got there, but for him, the story is about Cal’s birth and emergence.  Cal as an adult has most of the rules figured out and just wants to go back to the point where Calliope truly becomes Cal.

Oh, and why did it take so long to discover Cal?  This is a key reason why his story starts back with his grandparents.  As Greece collapses around them and they are forced to lie to flee to America, they save a doctor who first saved them.  When Calliope is born, he is already old and simply does a quick look to see if there’s a penis.  He barely registers anything about the baby at all.  Puberty was what really changed everything, so her own mother didn’t notice when changing her diapers.  Calliope has avoided the “female things” doctor and has never had a thorough exam.  It’s not until the ER doctors see her on the stretcher that everything is revealed.  If you feel like this is too much willing suspension of disbelief, don’t.  It makes sense and Cal explains it, both before and after his birth.

I finished the last page and felt really satisfied.  I like when that happens.  There’s the physical act of closing the book and a moment where you sit and know that this was time well spent.