There is a fine tradition of big, burly multi-generational sagas in American literature, but Jeffrey Eugenides' second novel, Middlesex, is probably the only one narrated by an omniscient hermaphrodite. With Dickensian directness, Cal Stephanides gets right to the point in the opening sentence. "I was born twice: First, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." Not your ordinary opening line, but then Middlesex is anything but ordinary. "It is out there" in the best sense—a wry, unpredictable and ultimately wise book that has much to say about gender identity, family, adolescence and American values. It is funny and poignant and mythical, and very hard to put down.
Cal is baptized Calliope in a Greek Orthodox church on the eastside of Detroit, and for the next 14 years is raised as a girl. The doctor who brings her into the world is a 74-year-old Armenian who came over on the boat with Calliope's grandparents. Not quite the doctor he once was, he fails to notice that this baby has rather unusual genitals. No one notices, in fact, until Calliope hits puberty and starts to figure out that she is not like the other students at the all-girl school she attends. She remains flat-chested and never begins to menstruate. Her hormones are raging, but the object of her passionate affections is not some teenaged boy, but a redheaded classmate.
Just how Calliope ended up a hermaphrodite and what happens when she finds out is the two-directional story this novel tells. It travels back to Bithynios, a village in eastern Turkey, whence her grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty, flee during the 1922 war between the Greeks and the Turks. The two marry aboard the boat to America and keep secret the fact that they are sister and brother. After many generations of cousins marrying cousins in their little village, poor Calliope will bear the brunt of this even closer than normal interbreeding. Desdemona and Lefty end up in Detroit, and their son, Milton, lives out the mid-century American dream as an aspiring clarinetist, World War II vet and successful restaurateur. He marries Tessie, who also happens to be his second cousin. Calliope's genetic fate is sealed.
One of the great achievements of this book is its portrait of Detroit over a period of 75 years. Calliope's grandparents arrive in the midst of Prohibition, and after a very brief stint as a cog in Henry Ford's industrial machine, Lefty turns to bootlegging. Desdemona, who brought an arcane knowledge of silk production with her from Asia Minor, works for a time within the secret confines of an early incarnation of the Nation of Islam. Milton takes the considerable amount of insurance money he collects when his restaurant burns during the 1967 race riots and heads for the tony suburb of Grosse Pointe and a house with the prescient name of Middlesex. It is there, during the polyester '70s, that Calliope will discover she is really a boy.
A visit to New York Hospital, where sexual disorder and gender identity guru Dr. Peter Luce conducts his research, confirms the worst. But while Calliope displays an XY karotype, which means he is biologically a boy, Dr. Luce decides that he should continue life as the girl he has been raised to be. Cal has other ideas, though. She runs away and meets with a few surprising adventures while trying to figure out exactly who she or he is.
Jeffrey Eugenides proved in his first novel, the cult classic The Virgin Suicides, that he understands adolescent angst, and he is adept at conveying Cal's confusion. Many of us had a hard time surviving the obstacles of adolescence without having to deal with the ramifications of a muted fifth chromosome. But despite this added liability, Cal remains remarkably upbeat, levelheaded and precociously wise. She later he is a cool kid, who handles things with more equilibrium than most. It's as if some measure of the ancient wisdom of her Greek forebears has been passed down along with the genetic mutation.
Given his biological makeup, this particular strand of the Stephanides line will end with Cal. But Middlesex does not end with sadness, it ends with a kind of hope that springs from Cal's humor-tempered realization that we humans can get used to just about anything, if we give it a chance.
Robert Weibezahl has worked in the book publishing industry for 20 years as a writer and publicist. He lives in Los Angeles.