30 May 2010

"But in the end it wasn't up to me. The big things never are."

#19 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Wow, I loved this book. It's a hearty 520 pages, but I wish it would keep going. I wish I could hear more of Callie/Cal's story.

Callie/Cal? Indeed. A baby girl is born in Detroit in 1960. In the summer of 1974, that girl becomes a man due to a genetic disorder. In order to trace how his genetic disorder came to be, Cal, now 41 and working for the US State Department, reveals his family history.

He begins with his grandparents living in Greece in 1922. They decide to leave their country as the Turks come to invade and experience the Great Fire of Smyrna first hand. Lefty and Desdemona end up in Detroit, where they raise their family and witness their grandchildren grow up. However, they are hiding a secret, a secret which will eventually affect Cal.

Fast forward to 1960. Calliope Stephanides is born. Her doctor doesn't notice a slight abnormality on little Callie's body. No one does, despite all the diaper changes and doctor visits. As she gets older, however, she notices she's more attracted to girls than boys, but doesn't think much of it because she ends up attending a private girls' school where feelings like that are normal. Once Callie hits puberty she's no longer the little Greek girl with long eyelashes and gorgeous hair; her features turn masculine. Her voice drops. She feels pain in her lower stomach, and no, it's not her period. She stays flat as a washboard. Upon meeting a specialist in New York City, Callie decides she can no longer live as a female. She becomes Cal.

While that merely summarizes Callie's story, there's so much more to the book. The family's personalities and interactions. I loved every anecdote that Cal provided, no matter which generation of the Stephanides clan he was talking about. The history of Detroit. There's so much to analyze and take from this book, I feel like it would be perfect for an English class. The writing is beautiful and if I wasn't trying to finish the book in a week (or less) I would have gladly maimed it with a highlighter and pen.

One of the things I loved most about the book was Eugenides' ability to interweave the family's history with real historical events. I would venture to say that it gave the Stephanides' family a greater purpose and stresses the sense of destiny that Cal speaks of regarding his condition. In Cal's perspective, he believes that was his fate for the genetic disorder to rear its head on him. I particularly loved an excerpt where Cal traces back to the moments when his mother becomes pregnant with him and his brother. That particular moment, that egg. They decided what Cal would become.

Eugenides is talking about gender identity and family secrets. And while some of these secrets would typically make one disgusted, Eugenides' descriptions made me empathize with the characters and their situations. Hermaphroditism isn't the easiest subject to discuss, nor is it a subject I would say people are particularly compassionate about. Honestly, how many jokes about transvestites have you heard (and laughed at)?

Loved loved loved this book.

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