Gender is an intriguing sociological aspect of the lives of human beings; one that has been extensively studied, challenged and altered throughout history; and, in the case of Jeffrey Eugenides, explored through the medium of storytelling. Narrated by Cal Stephanides, a hermaphroditic man of Greek descent—who lived the first fourteen years of his life as a girl named Calliope—Middlesex is the darkly comic and captivating story of a Greek-American family and their triumphs and failures in their pursuit of the American dream.
Calliope Stephanides, a second-generation American, grows up in suburban Grosse Point, Michigan within the zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s, a time of political turmoil, racial tensions, and the sexual revolution. As narrator, Cal—now an adult man living in Germany –traces his genetic history, starting with his Greek grandparents’ emigration from Turkey during the Greco-Turkish War, and the long-buried family secrets that ultimately lead to him being born intersex—a condition that would go unnoticed until his tumultuous teenage years; and a revelation which, during an adolescence beset with sexual confusion and experimentation, would mark the transition of Calliope’s transformation into Cal.
Throughout the novel, Cal interweaves various historical events with the concurrent storylines, starting with her grandparents fleeing Turkey during the Great Fire of Smyrna and travelling to America during Prohibition—a time during which his grandfather gets involved in bootlegging. The novel then moves forward in time to the courtship and marriage of Cal’s parents during the Vietnam War, and Calliope’s childhood during the Detroit Riot of 1967 and the Watergate scandal of the 70s. With these events serving as backdrops, the issue of gender politics is explored through the relationships of the Stephanides family, and the roles the men and women fulfill within the social and cultural context, as well as the closeted lesbianism of one of Cal’s distant cousins.
Allusions to Greek mythology have a strong presence throughout the novel, such as the symbolism of the Minotaur, the Greek beast that was half-man and half-bull; young Calliope’s identification with the Oracle of Delphi; and her role in her middle school’s production of Sophocles’ Antigone. In a sense, Middlesex also contains elements of Homer’s The Odyssey, as it tells of a family’s epic journey that spans cultures, continents, and times of great social upheaval, in addition to Cal’s coming-of-age journey, and his struggle to come to terms with his identity as a man.
Long story short, Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason. The novel succeeds on many levels: as a family saga, a bildungsroman, an historical chronicle, and a modern-day Greek epic, with the occasional bit of mythology thrown in; simply put, an impressive accomplishment in the art of storytelling.