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Book Club Wed Mar 12 2008

April Selection: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

“My genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me,” writes 40-something Cal Stephanides as he looks back on his life. The same might be said for all of us. From the way we walk, talk, think and construct our identities, gender plays an immeasurable role in shaping our social beings. For many of us the meddling hand of gender may appear only in the background, but for Cal, born Calliope Helen, daughter to Milton and Tessie Stephanides, the role of gender is unmistakable in its ability to shape every aspect of a life.

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex is much more than the story of a fictional pseudo-hermaphrodite. It is also a sweeping epic of three generations of the Stephanides family as they move from their Grecian homeland to settle in a deteriorating Detroit. To escape the Turkish invasion, Desdemona and Eleutherios (Lefty) Stephanides sail to the United States to live with their cousin Sourmelina and her husband Jimmy in Detroit. It is here that Lefty embarks on a brief stint as a Ford autoworker, defies prohibition by running alcohol across the Canadian border, and eventually sets up his business running a speakeasy called the Zebra Room from his family’s basement. It is also during this time that Desdemona becomes pregnant with Milton, always fearful that the choices she’s made in her life will prove harmful to her children. Fate, however, does not show its head here, as both Milton and his younger sister prove to be healthy children. Fate reserves itself for the next generation

Throughout the narrative, Cal is very conscious of the role fate played in his creation. Were it not for the fact that both his parents carried the same mutation on the same chromosome, his life would have differed greatly. Perhaps, if it were not also for his parents’ attempts to cheat God by timing their sexual encounter to conceive a girl – however scientifically valid their attempts may be, their intention stands firm – Cal’s life may have also been very different. But fate reveals itself on a summer day when a run-in with a tractor lands Calliope in the emergency room: blood tests reveal the presence of an XY chromosomal pairing. From the start of the book, Cal makes clear that he is not sexually androgynous - what he has is an inability to produce dihydrotestosterone (DHT) called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome and it is DHT that plays a crucial part in the development of male genitalia. Thus, while Cal possesses all the secondary sex characteristics of a man, his underdeveloped genitals allowed his gender identity to go unknown for fourteen years. Whether this genetic abnormality is merely a confluence of random events or a matter of fate is something Cal ponders for much of his adult life.

The world of sexual ambiguity is perhaps so fascinating because for many of us it is simply unfamiliar and new. It would be easy for Cal’s story of a man raised as a girl to be conflated into tabloid fodder, but Eugenides’s attention to detail, his ability to capture what it means to feel different and draw us completely into Cal’s head makes this so much more. This is a story as much about history, place, family, secrets and love as it is about one person’s unusual life. Far from a sensational account of Cal’s abnormalities, Middlesex serves as a beautiful and grand (fictional) autobiography of a person on a search for something that captivates us all: identity.

* * *

Jeffrey Eugenides is also the author of The Virgin Suicides, which was made into a film by Sophia Coppola. It was not for another nine years that Middlesex, his second book, would be published and win the Pulitzer Prize. Though Eugenides shares many traits with Cal – right down to the Musketeer-style mustache – he has made clear that he does not possess Cal’s hormone deficiency. He is currently living in Chicago.

For more information on 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, click here.

You can also read more on Eugenides and Middlesex on Oprah’s website.

 
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