In Middlesex, the character of Calliope and later Cal, Eugenides takes his readers on a refreshing and well written journey into an often unknown subject, hermaphroditism. Calliope tells the story of her family’s past in Greece and their present in Detroit, as she guides her reader through the emotional and biological steps that have lead to her difficulties with maturation and development and her eventual transformation into a boy. In uncovering Calliope’s struggles in adolescence, young adulthood and later adulthood through the development of her/his gender and sexual identities, readers discover new insights into the lives of people who might be labeled as different by society. Some of the most important and lingering realizations readers encounter about the narrator, who thinks and feels like an outsider, are not the differences, but the commonalities that persist in the human experience.
Family plays a large role in determining Calliope’s future, through both nature and nurture. The author builds his story around the foundation of the past Calliope’s family has laid down before her. Decisions made by her ancestors, grandparents and parents, to marry family members create a genetic mutation, which is passed down for generations to her, leaving her with, among other things, an underdeveloped penis, feminine features, and more male sex hormones than other “females.” Her differences go unnoticed for years, and her parents raise her as a girl. She is dressed in pink, taught to paint her nails and is sent to an all girl’s school. Her Greek family has strict gender distinctions, women do housework, cook and clean, while men earn a living. From an early age Calliope has a sense for the ways she should act, look, and feel. When she feels different from the messages she is sent, she starts to question her normalcy.
As Calliope enters adolescence and young adulthood, changes in body and mind start to confuse her. Eugenides captures this time in her life with skill as he describes the comparisons that she makes with the other girls at school. She wonders about developing breasts, armpit hair, getting her period. All the other girls have boyfriends, but she is confused because she likes a girl, The Object. She starts to wonder about what it means to be different. Is she different? She thinks, maybe the others are all having these thoughts, aren’t they? If it is just her then she is wrong or bad. As readers we remember our own private thoughts from back then, and we become immersed in her thoughts, her fears.
Although some situations the author puts Calliope in may be different from those readers experienced, they are all relatable. All families pass down traits we wish we didn’t have. In the same ways, we can all think of things things we wish our parents would have done differently. We think, if only they hadn’t been so negative, I would hate myself less or whatever it is. Anyway, we all have enough grievances with our own parents to imagine a house where they are clueless enough to raise a boy as girl and completely destroy the child’s gender identity. We can remember grade school and middle school, analyzing everyone else’s situation and comparing. We all ask ourselves: Am I normal? So we read this descriptive, emotional novel and we empathize. It is sad, because it’s believable. It’s good, because it’s real. With time, change, and transformation there is hope. By the end of the novel we see this doesn’t just apply to Calliope; she represents something bigger. We’re all evolving from what we once were.
Star Rating: 3 out of 5