Nature versus nurture is a broad attempt to explain how a person became who they are today. However, the main character Cal in Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides pushes the boundaries and arguments to the limits without meaning to. The novel revolves around family–what nature created from the grandparents and parents as well as the nurture of how Cal was raised and treated growing up. In order to do this, Eugenides took on a very ambitious task in writing this story and it is no wonder that he won the Pulitzer Prize for it.
Desires fight norms throughout the novel. New life versus tradition. Longing versus incest. Self-made versus family business. The elderly versus the youth. Gender roles versus inner feelings.
From the very first sentence, we know that the main character was deemed a girl at birth but at the age of 14 was discovered to be a boy when puberty set in. Cal is a male who lacks some of the necessary hormones so did not fully sexually develop as either gender. He proceeds to tell us his complete story, which means beginning with his Greek grandparents in Smyrna, Turkey, in 1922 during the Greco-Turkish War and the Great Fire of Smyrna. Whether from the turmoil and strife of the times or pure misguided love, Desdemona and Eleutherios “Lefty” Stephanides married each other even though they were sister and brother. On the boat from Turkey to America, they convinced everyone that they had only just met and played out a love story for themselves as well as their audience. In Detroit, they stayed with their cousin and her husband. Both couples had kids, perfectly normal in spite of Desdemona’s fear and guilt of her incest. Her son Milton in turn marries his cousin Tessie and they have two kids of their own–Chapter Eleven the son, and the main character Calliope (Callie) the daughter-turned-son who goes by Cal.
Middlesex contains four sections: the first about the Greek grandparents in Turkey and their journey to America, the second covers living in Detroit up to Cal’s conception, part three follows Callie’s childhood and life as a girl, and the fourth and final section takes us from the notion that she may be a male instead of female through his struggle to embrace himself as he truly is. Though the novel has these distinct parts and follows other characters, Cal is always the main focus, including himself into the story in the present, seeking a girlfriend despite the fact that he cannot fully be with someone sexually so is unable to commit, while also examining the past that made him who he is today as he tells the full story of his family and his life.
So far, this has been a very simplified summary, which leaves out all of the wonderful topics and details that Eugenides indulges in throughout the telling. The novel is storytelling at its finest, gritty reality when need be, endearing faulty romances, and heartbreaking grappling with life and its challenges. In crafting such an ambitious story, Eugenides takes us on travels with all of his characters, from silk worm farming in war-torn Turkey to the Henry Ford assembly line and prohibition era of Detroit and a strip club in San Francisco in the mid-1970s for Cal to find and be comfortable with himself. A Detroit Islamic mosque, the riots of 1967, and even the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 are all touched on. It is clear that Eugenides believes that cultural history affects the family history which in turn molds the person that Cal becomes. Thus, the novel is comprehensive in a great many things, touching on even more, just to tell Cal’s story. In telling his, it all must be told. By taking this approach, the novel becomes a robust, complex, intricate family history that makes the reader understand and care about all of the members but in particular Cal. He alone takes on the responsibility of everyone’s past actions, and no one realizes this for a good portion of his life. The novel is not only about how he becomes who he is but also how he excepts and grows into the role that was coded in his genetics for him from the start.
Sex plays a large and very important role throughout this whole novel, as the grandparents and his parents created what he became. With gender roles also a big part of determining who a person is, Calliope’s sexual interests and experiences as a young girl and teenager helped her understand that she wasn’t part of the typical female role early on and allowed her grow into Cal and take on more easily the male persona that she always had been. Once the genetics are uncovered, Cal immediately feels right being male and has no trouble transitioning from that point forward. The story from then on becomes him figuring out how to be comfortable and act in the new gender role in order to convince others and feel fully male himself. Not much of the story takes place in the present with the adult Cal. There are a few scenes that hint that he isn’t fully comfortable still today and is trying to find that woman who makes him feel that he can be himself as his is, especially sexually.
Recommended?: Yes. Oddly enough, this is an Oprah Book Club book, which impresses me because the topics covered can be hard to read since Eugenides makes the reader sympathetic to the characters even when their morality is questionable. The novel itself is very approachable and readable yet the writing style is beautiful and complex as well. It is an enjoyable read even though it is difficult at times due to subject matter. With a rich world of multiple settings and characters it’s hard not to love this book. It is a well-crafted and plotted story, and the ending is satisfying and wraps up as it should. While it’s a great book for people struggling with gender roles and changes, the book remains focused on family and would be an excellent read for any adult.