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Middlesex: A Novel

A book by Jeffrey Eugenides

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

  • Aug 22, 2009
All of the recent controversy about the South African runner Caster Semenya prompted me to think about Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Middlesex.” It’s the best novel you’ll ever read about male pseudohermaphroditism. The main character Calliope Helen Stephanides is affected by a rare genetic disorder called 5-alpha reductase deficiency which is inherited as an autosomal recessive trait. The enzyme deficiency prevents conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT) which is the physiologically more active form of the hormone. A growing male fetus needs DHT for proper genital development and without its effect the newborn baby (although genetically male) will have ambiguous genitalia and may be classified as female. Mr. Eugenides shows a remarkable knowledge of the syndrome including the facts that the mutation is more common in people from Turkey and that its occurrence reflects consanguinity in affected kindreds. If misidentified at birth, people with this disorder often are raised as females. Remember that whereas sexuality is biological, gender is a cultural construct. So, a person growing up with this disorder may well be raised as a girl.
Actually, there are 2 forms of 5-alpha reductase. The gene for 5-alpha reductase type 2 (which is responsible for this syndrome) is on chromosome 2, but the gene for 5-alpha reductase type 1 is on chromosome 5. A person with the disorder does not menstruate and shows no breast development. The normal type 1 enzyme however begins to manifest its effects at puberty in affected individuals and causes some development of male secondary sex characteristics such as broad shoulders and narrow hips, increased muscle mass, facial hair, and a deeper voice. I believe Eugenides has made a small error in his book in locating the faulty gene on chromosome 5. I think it should have been chromosome 2.
The novel is narrated by “Cal” as a 41 year-old “man” who has adopted a male gender identity and is looking back at his childhood and adolescence growing up as a “girl” in Detroit in the 60’s and early 70’s. The majority of the book relates the experiences and feelings of the young Calliope, and consequently the voice and tone of the novel are strongly feminine. Calliope tells “her” story with grace and wonderful humor. “She” has a knack for nicknames too. “Her” brother is “Chapter 11” but he is not as bankrupt as his “sister” thinks, and it is he who rescues Calliope and brings “her” home at the end of the book. Another crucial character in the book is an attractive young redheaded teenage girl with freckles whom Calliope nicknames the “Obscure Object” after Brunuel’s movie “That Obscure Object of Desire.” The best part of the book (about two-thirds of the way through) describes the relationship that develops between Calliope and the Obscure Object and the intercession of the Obscure Object’s brother Jerome. This part of the book culminates in an accident that results in Calliope’s being brought to an emergency room where “her” condition is recognized (“she” is about 14 at the time). Cal is brought by “her” parents to a specialist in New York city. After the appointment, “she” wanders into the New York Public Library seeking information and looks up words related to “her” condition – from “hypospadias” to “eunuch” to “hermaphrodite” and then the word “monster.” That evening, “her” parents go to a Broadway musical, but “she” stays behind in the hotel and then runs away. Cal hitchhikes to San Francisco and after being beaten up in Golden GatePark finds “herself” working in an exploitative sexual freak club called “Octopussy’s Garden.” Cal is befriended by Zora who has androgen insensitivity syndrome. Such people also are geneticially male (i.e. X,Y) but cannot respond to androgens during embryonic development due to a mutation in the androgen receptor. Externally, affected individuals look completely female. The club is raided one night, and Cal is taken to the police station. She calls “Chapter 11” who flies out to get “her” and they return to Detroit.
“Middlesex” is a superb novel that shows strong sensitivity and compassion for the personal and social difficulties faced by people with intersex conditions and the gender confusion that results. Highly recommended.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

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More Middlesex (book) reviews
review by . June 30, 2010
I am convinced that Jeffrey Eugenides will be a name readers identify for generations to come.  I was impressed by his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, but Middlesex demonstrates an increased sense of the characters and truly keeps the reader in the grips of the plot.  The story of the main characters is compelling, while secondary characters who played parts in important historic events gave depth to a story that took place mostly in Detroit.     SPOILER ALERT- It is …
review by . June 25, 2010
This is an outstanding novel and a very worthy Pulitzer Prize winner. If you told me I'd enjoy a book about a hermaphrodite that finds their true sexual identity - not my kind of thing! But this is a very serious, well thought out, and comi-tragic novel about Cal. Calliope grew up thinking he was a girl until puberty came and oops! Actually not. But it's about much more than just that. The novel is epic in scope centering on the history of Calliope's family and exactly how it came …
Quick Tip by . July 04, 2010
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Well written story about a subject often ignored.
Quick Tip by . July 02, 2010
Very interesting book! Totally outside of what I normally read or expected.
Quick Tip by . June 17, 2010
Well crafted and on point.
Quick Tip by . June 17, 2010
one of my favorite books of all time. vast, sweeping -- i still am amazed by how intuitively eugenides writes as a female protagonist
Quick Tip by . June 16, 2010
this book is so good that when i first read it, i was convinced of my OWN hermaphroditism although i was born and identify as a female.
Quick Tip by . June 12, 2010
I really enjoyed this book.
Quick Tip by . June 10, 2010
Very, very worth reading.
About the reviewer
Steve DiBartola ()
Ranked #152
I was invited to join Lunch by one of the developers, who apparently read some reviews I posted on Library Thing. My interests are books, music, and movies. I enjoy both classical and contemporary fiction, … more
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About this book


Middlesex is a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. It was published in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003.

The narrator and protagonist, Calliope Stephanides (later called "Cal"), an intersexed person of Greek descent, has 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. The bulk of the novel is devoted to telling his coming-of-age story growing up in Detroit, Michigan in the late 20th century. This story, however, is intertwined with elements of a family saga, meditations on the era's zeitgeist and bits of contemporary history.

The novel begins with the narrator, aged 41, deciding to tell the story of his recessive gene that caused him to be born Calliope and later to become Cal. The narration periodically returns to the frame story of present-day Cal, who is bearded, male and interested in women, foreshadowing the personal revelations of Callie.

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ISBN-10: 0312427735 0374199698
ISBN-13: 978-0312427733 9780374199692
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, Giroux
Date Published: 2002
Format: Book : Fiction; English
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