Middlesex

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Overview

In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides finds herself drawn to a classmate at her girls' school in Grosse Point, Michigan. That passion -- along with her failure to develop -- leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. The explanation for this is a rare genetic mutation -- and a guilty secret -- that have followed Callie's grandparents from the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Prohibition-era Detroit and beyond, outlasting the glory days of the Motor City, the race riots of 1967, and the family's ...
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Middlesex

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Overview

In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides finds herself drawn to a classmate at her girls' school in Grosse Point, Michigan. That passion -- along with her failure to develop -- leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. The explanation for this is a rare genetic mutation -- and a guilty secret -- that have followed Callie's grandparents from the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Prohibition-era Detroit and beyond, outlasting the glory days of the Motor City, the race riots of 1967, and the family's second migration, into the foreign country known as suburbia. Thanks to the gene, Callie is part girl, part boy. And even though the gene's epic travels have ended, her own odyssey has only begun.

Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Nominated for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Award, Fiction.
2002 Lambda Literary Award Finalist, Transgender.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Jeffrey Eugenides kept a fairly low profile after his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, caused a stir in 1993. With Middlesex, a sprawling yet intimate novel that earns the turning of every one of its 500-plus pages, he proves that the time was very well spent. Imagine a cross between E. L. Doctorow's classic Ragtime and one of the multigenerational epics of James Michener. Better yet, don't approach this book with any preconceptions -- just have an open heart and mind plus a willingness to let a novelist who knows what he's doing break a few storytelling rules.

Raised as a girl by her second-generation Greek-American family, Calliope (now Cal) Stephanides is physiologically a hermaphrodite and is more male than female. That's not giving away much -- Cal explains it on the first page. What's remarkable is that a book can start with such a revelation and still manage to be full of surprises. Narrated by Cal, the story also shares the thoughts, feelings, and intimate details of the lives of Cal's grandparents, parents, and other family members. In this omniscient first-person mode, we get an epic family saga, a journey from 1920s Greece to 1960s Detroit to contemporary Europe -- one that leads to a remarkably satisfying conclusion. To understand anyone, Eugenides seems to be implying, we need to know not only his or her (or in this case, "his/her") inner thoughts, but also those of all the ancestors whose DNA has contributed to the mix that created him/her.

"Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times," begs Cal. But she/he has nothing to apologize for. It's exactly that willingness to take this rich and accessible story over the top that makes Eugenides' novel so complexly and wonderfully moving. Lou Harry

Penelope Mesic
For the first fourteen years of life, Calliope Helen Stephanides, the narrator and main character of this second novel from the author of The Virgin Suicides, is a coltish schoolgirl, the bright, coddled daughter of a hard-working Greek family who own a chain of hotdog stands in Detroit. But for Calliope, the transformations of puberty do not consist of the usual ripening of womanly curves, but rather the solid musculature, husky voice and nascent mustache of shocking, unsuspected manhood. Named for the muse of epics—of which this wonderful comic novel is surely a modern version—Calliope is the rarest form of hermaphrodite. "Like Tiresias," she explains, "I was first one thing and then the other."

It is this dual viewpoint, as much as the oddity of her experiences, that prompts her to write. "I want to get it down for good: this roller coaster ride of a single gene through time. Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!" Cal bravely declares, adding, "Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That's genetic too." It is in fact the first of many classical allusions. Homer called the sea "wine-dark." Landlocked Calliope, as befits her Motor City origins, mentions a "wine-dark Buick." Cal's mock-heroic announcement is the portal into so odd and yet so normal a chronicle of three generations of an American family that readers will find themselves gloating over the book's length and its consequent guarantee of extended pleasure.

The story begins in the tiny Greek village of Bithynios in 1922. Perilously near the Turkish border, it is a center of silkworm cultivation. Here, Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides, Calliope's grandparents, growup; and from here they flee to the port of Smyrna, where they precariously survive the sacking of the city by Ottoman troops. During their passage to the United States, the Stephanideses make a rash decision. Acting on an incestuous passion, they start their new life by declaring themselves not brother and sister but husband and wife.

In their commingled genes Calliope's fate is sealed. In the old country, this would be Greek tragedy. But in the America of Eugenides' novel—the land of optimism and self-transformation—consensual incest engenders only slightly more regret than it does in Tom Jones. At one point the author describes a lustful impulse by saying, "It was her body that did it, with the cunning and silence of bodies everywhere." In these pages, human frailty is excusable.

Human tyranny, however, is not. Thus Eugenides ridicules the paternalism of the Ford Corporation—which in its early years inspected workers' homes for signs of loose living, poor hygiene or similar transgressions against the American way of life—as Lefty attends compulsory training at the automobile plant. There he is forced to recite, "Do not spit on the floor of the home" and "The most advanced people are the cleanest." Similarly, the condescending doctor who torments Calliope with tests and seeks to exploit the rarity of her condition is as close as the novel comes to a villain.

In other literatures and cultures, a woman who permits incestuous relations would be an object of condemnation and horror. But a clue to how lightly we are expected to regard Desdemona comes when Eugenides describes the braids emblematic of her nature: "not delicate like a little girl's but heavy and womanly, possessing a natural power, like a beaver's tail." The sudden incongruity of the last two words raises the sentence from something one might find in run-of-the-mill magical realism to true, subversive comedy.

Such highly compressed, explosively sudden comparisons are Eugenides' forte. Some are charmingly written, as when Calliope's aunt Zoë sits so meekly in church that "the round gray hat she wore looked like the head of a screw fastening her to her pew." Others have the force of poetry, as when Calliope says of the freckled, red-haired schoolmate whom she secretly adores, "It was like autumn, looking at her. It was like driving up north to see the colors."

When Eugenides deals not in metaphor but in historical detail, he imbues facts with the same piquancy as his imagination. The 1967 Detroit riots that destroy Lefty's cozy, dumpy little restaurant, The Zebra Room, resonate with the Stephanideses' recollection of Smyrna in flames. And consider the antic boldness of making use of the Nation of Islam's Mosque Number One as the setting for the recently emigrated Desdemona's first job, teaching young black women how to make the silk for the congregants' robes.

Even a great-hearted novel such as this one has patches that are marginally less satisfying. Eugenides' home turf is adolescence. Perhaps for this reason, Cal's account of his own middle age in the present day seems dim and perfunctory, a mere episode before we return to the moment when Calliope, now Cal, presents her mother with her new identity.

Their wonderful brief exchange expands a singular genetic event into an inescapable human experience, one that takes place between every child impatient to embrace the future dictated by one's nature, and every parent who shrinks from the inevitable hardships that child must undergo.
Publishers Weekly
Without a doubt, this audio edition of Eugenides's long-awaited second novel (after The Virgin Suicides) represents an acme of the audiobook genre: the whole equals much more than the sum of its parts. This is simultaneously the tale of a gene passed down through three generations and the story of Calliope Stephanides, the recipient of that gene. Never quite feeling at home in her body, Callie discovered at the age of 14 that she is, in fact, genetically, if not completely anatomically, a boy. From this point on she becomes Cal, and it is Cal, the 41-year-old man, who narrates the story, dipping all the way back in history to the time of his grandparents' incestuous relationship in war-torn Turkey. Tabori's performance of the text is phenomenal. His somewhat high-register, wavering voice, reminiscent of a young Burgess Meredith, is completely convincing as both the young female Callie and the older male Cal. Not only are his interpretations of the characters astonishingly credible, but his internalization of the narrative is nothing short of amazing. Listeners will feel this exhilarating story is being told personally to them for the very first time. Additionally, the intro music at the beginning of each of the 28 sides is different, with each snippet offering a different style of music, reflecting the current timeline and mood of the story. This adds a subtle but wonderful effect. Simultaneous release with the FSG hardcover (Forecasts, July 1). (Sept.)
Library Journal
Eugenides's second novel (after The Virgin Suicides) opens "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl...in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy...in August of 1974." Thus starts the epic tale of how Calliope Stephanides is transformed into Cal. Spanning three generations and two continents, the story winds from the small Greek village of Smyrna to the smoggy, crime-riddled streets of Detroit, past historical events, and through family secrets. The author's eloquent writing captures the essence of Cal, a hermaphrodite, who sets out to discover himself by tracing the story of his family back to his grandparents. From the beginning, the reader is brought into a world rich in culture and history, as Eugenides extends his plot into forbidden territories with unique grace. His confidence in the story, combined with his sure prose, helps readers overcome their initial surprise and focus on the emotional revelation of the characters and beyond. Once again, Eugenides proves that he is not only a unique voice in modern literature but also well versed in the nature of the human heart. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/02.] - Rachel Collins, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-From the opening paragraph, in which the narrator explains that he was "born twice," first as a baby girl in 1960, then as a teenage boy in 1974, readers are aware that Calliope Stephanides is a hermaphrodite. To explain his situation, Cal starts in 1922, when his grandparents came to America. In his role as the "prefetal narrator," he tells the love story of this couple, who are brother and sister; his parents are blood relatives as well. Then he tells his own story, which is that of a female child growing up in suburban Detroit with typical adolescent concerns. Callie, as he is known then, worries because she hasn't developed breasts or started menstruating; her facial hair is blamed on her ethnicity, and she and her mother go to get waxed together. She develops a passionate crush on her best girlfriend, "the Object," and consummates it in a manner both detached and steamy. Then an accident causes Callie to find out what she's been suspecting-she's not actually a girl. The story questions what it is that makes us who we are and concludes that one's inner essence stays the same, even in light of drastic outer changes. Mostly, the novel remains a universal narrative of a girl who's happy to grow up but hates having to leave her old self behind. Readers will love watching the narrator go from Callie to Cal, and witnessing all of the life experiences that get her there.-Jamie Watson, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
The New York Times
...an uproarious epic, at once funny and sad, about misplaced identities and family secrets.... Mr. Eugenides has a keen sociological eye for 20th-century American life.... But it's his emotional wisdom, his nuanced insight into his characters' inner lives, that lends this book its cumulative power. Michiko Kakutani
Michiko Kakutani
… an uproarious epic, at once funny and sad, about misplaced identities and family secrets.... Mr. Eugenides has a keen sociological eye for 20th-century American life.... But it's his emotional wisdom, his nuanced insight into his characters' inner lives, that lends this book its cumulative power.
— The New York Times
From the Publisher
"Jeffrey Eugenides is a big and big-hearted talent, and Middlesex is a weird, wonderful novel that will sweep you off your feet."

-Jonathan Franzen

"Once again, Eugenides proves that he is not only a unique voice in modern literature but also well versed in the nature of the human heart."

-Library Journal (starred review).

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312427733
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 6/5/2007
  • Series: Oprah's Book Club Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 33,255
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.18 (h) x 1.06 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit and attended Brown and Stanford Universities. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux to great acclaim in 1993, and was adapted into a film by Sofia Coppola. Middlesex received the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and France's Prix Medicis, and was selected for Oprah's Book Club. It has sold more than 3 million copies.

Biography

Jeffrey Eugenides grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and attended Brown and Stanford Universities. His novel Middlesex was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Ambassador Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, France's Prix Medicis, and the Lambda Literary Award. It was also selected for Oprah's Book Club. Eugenides' first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film by Sofia Coppola. He is on the faculty of Princeton University, and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Good To Know

Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated grew out of his creative writing thesis project, which was advised by Joyce Carol Oates and Eugenides.

Eugenides considered becoming a priest or a monk, and worked alongside Mother Teresa in India for one week during a traveling break from college. He explained to the Calgary Herald, "I was so unformed in my personality and was trying on different personas; being a saint was a bit tight on my shoulders, though. At 20 you can really change your philosophy of the world by reading a single book, or by one chance meeting."

Eugenides, who got the idea for The Virgin Suicides when his nephew's babysitter revealed to him that she and all her siblings had attempted suicide, wrote the book while working as an administrator at the Academy of American Poets in New York. The first chapter was published in the Paris Review in 1991, getting him an agent and, two days later, a book deal.

In a 1995 piece for the New York Times entitled, "Hand Me My Air Guitar: I'm Still a Jethro Tull Fan," Eugenides paid homage to one of his favorite bands. "Being a Tull fan is a chronic condition," he wrote. "As with malaria, a swampiness reclaims the veins without warning."

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    1. Hometown:
      Princeton, NJ
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 8, 1960
    2. Place of Birth:
      Detroit, Michigan
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English, Brown University, 1983; M.A. in creative writing/English, Stanford University, 1986

Read an Excerpt

THE SILVER SPOON

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. Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study, "Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites," published in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology in 1975. Or maybe you've seen my photograph in chapter sixteen of the now sadly outdated Genetics and Heredity. That's me on page 578, standing naked beside a height chart with a black box covering my eyes.

My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver's license (from the Federal Republic of Germany) records my first name simply as Cal. I'm a former field hockey goalie, longstanding member of the Save-the-Manatee Foundation, rare attendant at the Greek Orthodox liturgy, and, for most of my adult life, an employee of the U.S. State Department. Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other. I've been ridiculed by classmates, guinea-pigged by doctors, palpated by specialists, and researched by the March of Dimes. A redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe fell in love with me, not knowing what I was. (Her brother liked me, too.) An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into myth; I've left my body in order to occupy others — and all this happened before I turned sixteen.

But now, at the age of forty-one, I feel another birth coming on. After, decades of neglect, I find myself thinking about departed great-aunts and -uncles, long-lost grandfathers, unknown fifth cousins, or, in the case ofan inbred family like mine, all those things in one. And so before it's too late I want to get it down for good: this roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time. Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother's own mid-western womb.

Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That's genetic, too.

Three months before I was born, in the aftermath of one of our elaborate Sunday dinners, my grandmother Desdemona Stephanides ordered my brother to get her silkworm box. Chapter Eleven had been heading toward the kitchen for a second helping of rice pudding when she blocked his way. At fifty-seven, with her short, squat figure and intimidating hairnet, my grandmother was perfectly designed for blocking people's paths. Behind her in the kitchen, the day's large female contingent had congregated, laughing and whispering. Intrigued, Chapter Eleven leaned sideways to see what was going on, but Desdemona reached out and firmly pinched his cheek. Having regained his attention, she sketched a rectangle in the air and pointed at the ceiling. Then, through her ill-fitting dentures, she said, "Go for yia yia, dolly mou."

Chapter Eleven knew what to do. He ran across the hall into the living room. On all fours he scrambled up the formal staircase to the second floor. He raced past the bedrooms along the upstairs corridor. At the far end was a nearly invisible door, wallpapered over like the entrance to a secret passageway. Chapter Eleven located the tiny doorknob level with his head and, using all his strength, pulled it open. Another set of stairs lay behind it. For a long moment my brother stared hesitantly into the darkness above, before climbing, very slowly now, up to the attic where my grandparents lived.

In sneakers he passed beneath the twelve damply newspapered birdcages suspended from the rafters. With a brave face he immersed himself in the sour odor of the parakeets, and in my grandparents' own particular aroma, a mixture of mothballs and hashish. He negotiated his way past my grandfather's book-piled desk and his collection of rebetika records. Finally, bumping into the leather ottoman and the circular coffee table made of brass, he found my grandparents' bed and, under it, the silkworm box.

Carved from olivewood, a little bigger than a shoe box, it had a tin lid perforated by tiny airholes and inset with the icon of an unrecognizable saint. The saint's face had been rubbed off, but the fingers of his right hand were raised to bless a short, purple, terrifically self-confident-looking mulberry tree. After gazing awhile at this vivid botanical presence, Chapter Eleven pulled the box from under the bed and opened it. Inside were the two wedding crowns made from rope and, coiled like snakes, the two long braids of hair, each tied with a crumbling black ribbon. He poked one of the braids with his index finger. Just then a parakeet squawked, making my brother jump, and he closed the box, tucked it under his arm, and carried it downstairs to Desdemona.

She was still waiting in the doorway. Taking the silkworm box out of his hands, she turned back into the kitchen. At this point Chapter Eleven was granted a view of the room, where all the women now fell silent. They moved aside to let Desdemona pass and there, in the middle of the linoleum, was my mother. Tessie Stephanides was leaning back in a kitchen chair, pinned beneath the immense, drum-tight globe of her pregnant belly. She had a happy, helpless expression on her face, which was flushed and hot. Desdemona set the silkworm box on the kitchen table and, opened the lid. She reached under the wedding crowns and the hair braids to come up with something Chapter Eleven hadn't seen: a silver spoon. She tied a piece of string to the spoon's handle. Then, stooping forward, she dangled the spoon over my mother's swollen belly. And, by extension, over me.

Up until now Desdemona had had a perfect record: twenty-three correct guesses. Shed known that Tessie was going to be Tessie. She'd predicted the sex of my brother and of all the babies of her friends at church. The only children whose genders she hadn't divined were her own, because it was bad luck for a mother to plumb the mysteries of her own womb. Fearlessly, however, she plumbed my mother's. After some initial hesitation, the spoon swung north to south, which meant that I was going to be a boy.

Splay-legged in the chair, my mother tried to smile. She didn't want a boy. She had one already. In fact, she was so certain I was going to be a girl that she'd picked out only one name for me: Calliope. But when my grandmother shouted in Greek, "A boy!" the cry went around the room, and out into the hall, and across the hall into the living room where the men were arguing politics. And my mother, hearing it repeated so many times, began to believe it might be true.

As soon as the cry reached my father, however, he marched into the kitchen to tell his mother that, this time at least, her spoon was wrong. "And how you know so much?" Desdemona asked him. To which he replied what many Americans of his generation would have:

"It's science, Ma."

Ever since they had decided to have another child — the diner was doing well and Chapter Eleven was long out of diapers — Milton and Tessie had been in agreement that they wanted a daughter. Chapter Eleven had just turned five years old. He'd recently found a dead bird in the yard, bringing it into the house to show his mother. He liked shooting things, hammering things, smashing things, and wrestling with his father. In such a masculine household, Tessie had begun to feel like the odd woman out and saw herself in ten years' time imprisoned in a world of hubcaps and hernias. My mother pictured a daughter as a counterinsurgent: a fellow lover of lapdogs, a seconder of proposals to attend the Ice Capades. In the spring of 1959, when discussions of my fertilization got under way, my mother couldn't foresee that women would soon be burning their brassieres by the thousand. Hers were padded, stiff, fire-retardant. As much as Tessie loved her son, she knew there were certain things she'd be able to share only with a daughter.

On his morning drive to work, my father had been seeing visions of an irresistibly sweet, dark-eyed little girl. She sat on the seat beside him — mostly during stoplights — directing questions at his patient, all-knowing ear. "What do you call that thing, Daddy?" 'That? That's the Cadillac seal." "What's the Cadillac seal?" "Well, a long time ago, there was a French explorer named Cadillac, and he was the one who discovered Detroit. And that seal was his family seal, from France." "What's France?" "France is a country in Europe." "What's Europe?" "It's a continent, which is like a great big piece of land, way, way bigger than a country. But Cadillacs don't come from Europe anymore, kukla. They come from right here in the good old U.S.A." The light turned green and he drove on. But my prototype lingered. She was there at the next light and the next. So pleasant was her company that my father, a man loaded with initiative, decided to see what he could do to turn his vision into reality.

Thus: for some time now, in the living room where the men discussed politics, they had also been discussing the velocity of sperm. Peter Tatakis, "Uncle Pete" as we called him, was a leading member of the debating society that formed every week on our black love seats. A lifelong bachelor, he had no family in America and so had become attached to ours. Every Sunday he arrived in his wine-dark Buick, a tall, prune-faced, sad-seeming man with an incongruously vital head of wavy hair. He was not interested in children. A proponent of the Great Books series — which he had read twice — Uncle Pete was engaged with serious thought and Italian opera. He had a passion, in history, for Edward Gibbon, and, in literature, for the journals of Madame de Staël. He liked to quote that witty lady's opinion on the German language, which held that German wasn't good for conversation because you had to wait to the end of the sentence for the verb, and so couldn't interrupt. Uncle Pete had wanted to become a doctor, but the "catastrophe" had ended that dream. In the United States, he'd put himself through two years of chiropractic school, and now ran a small office in Birmingham with a human skeleton he was still paying for in installments. In those days, chiropractors had a somewhat dubious reputation. People didn't come to Uncle Pete to free up their kundalini. He cracked necks, straightened spines, and made custom arch supports out of foam rubber. Still, he was the closest thing to a doctor we had in the house on those Sunday afternoons. As a young man he'd had half his stomach surgically removed, and now after dinner always drank a Pepsi-Cola to help digest his meal. The soft drink had been named for the digestive enzyme pepsin, he sagely told us, and so was suited to the task.

Copyright © 2002 Jeffrey Eugenides

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Table of Contents

Book 1
The Silver Spoon 13
Matchmaking 41
An Immodest Proposal 80
The Silk Road 121
Book 2
Henry Ford's English-Language Melting Pot 149
Minotaurs 198
Marriage on Ice 235
Tricknology 276
Clarinet Serenade 304
News of the World 335
Ex Ovo Omnia 362
Book 3
Home Movies 391
Opa! 423
Middlesex 459
The Mediterranean Diet 494
The Wolverette 531
Waxing Lyrical 562
The Obscure Object 582
Tiresias in Love 620
Flesh and Blood 655
The Gun on the Wall 684
Book 4
The Oracular Vulva 723
Looking Myself Up in Webster's 764
Go West, Young Man 792
Gender Dysphoria in San Francisco 826
Hermaphroditus 859
Air-Ride 893
The Last Stop 922
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Reading Group Guide

A dazzling triumph from the best-selling author of The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex is the astonishing tale of a gene that passes down through three generations of a Greek American family and flowers in the body of Calliope Stephanides.

About this Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to augment your group's reading of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex, a fable of immigration, the intricacies of gender, and the deep, untidy promptings of desire. We hope they will enhance your discussion of the story of one person's unusual life and a family's dark secret.

Introduction
"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." So begins Jeffrey Eugenides' second novel, Middlesex, the story of Calliope Stephanides, who discovers at the age of fourteen that she is really a he. Cal traces the story of his transformation and the genetic condition that caused it back to his paternal grandparents, who happen also to be brother and sister, and the Greek village of Bithynios in Asia Minor.

In 1922, Desdemona Stephanides and her brother, Lefty, whose parents were killed in the recent war with the Turks, are living alone in their nearly abandoned village. Pulled together by isolation, sympathy, and, perhaps, fate, Lefty and Desdemona become husband and wife, and a recessive genetic condition begins its journey toward eventual expression in their grandchild Calliope.

Middlesex is a story about what it means to occupy the complex and unnamed middle ground between male and female, Greek and American, past and present. For Cal, caught between these identities, the journey to adulthood is particularly fraught. Jeffrey Eugenides' epic portrayal of Cal's struggle is classical in its structure and scope and contemporary in its content; a tender and honest examination of a battle that is increasingly relevant to us all.

Questions for Discussion
1. Describing his own conception, Cal writes: "The timing of the thing had to be just so in order for me to become the person I am. Delay the act by an hour and you change the gene selection" (p. 11). Is Cal's condition a result of chance or of fate? Which of these forces governs the world as Cal sees it?

2. Middlesex begins just before Cal's birth in 1960, then moves backward in time to 1922. Cal is born at the beginning of Part 3, about halfway through the novel. Why did the author choose to structure the story in this way? How does this movement backward and forward in time reflect the larger themes of the work?

3. When Tessie and Milton decide to try to influence the sex of their baby, Desdemona disapproves. "God decides what baby is," she says. "Not you" (p. 13). What happens when characters in the novel challenge fate?

4. "To be honest, the amusement grounds should be closed at this hour, but, for my own purposes, tonight Electric Park is open all night, and the fog suddenly lifts, all so that my grandfather can look out the window and see a roller coaster streaking down the track. A moment of cheap symbolism only, and then I have to bow to the strict rules of realism, which is to say: they can't see a thing" (pp. 110-11). Occasionally, Cal interrupts his own narrative, calling attention to himself and the artifice inherent in his story. What purpose do these interruptions serve? Is Cal a reliable narrator?

5. "I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever," Cal writes (p. 217). How does Cal narrate the events that take place before his birth? Does his perspective as a narrator change when he is recounting events that take place after he is born?

6. "All I know is this: despite my androgenized brain, there's an innate feminine circularity in the story I have to tell" (p. 20). What does Cal mean by this? Is his manner of telling his story connected to the question of his gender? How?

7. How are Cal's early sexual experiences similar to those of any adolescent? How are they different? Are the differences more significant than the similarities?

8. Why does Cal decide to live as a man rather than as a woman?

9. How does Cal's experience reflect on the "nature vs. nurture" debate about gender identity?

10. Who is Jimmy Zizmo? How does he influence the course of events in the novel?

11. What is Dr. Luce's role in the novel? Would you describe him as a villain?

12. Calliope is the name of the classical Greek muse of eloquence and epic poetry. What elements of Greek mythology figure in Cal's story? Is this novel meant to be a new "myth"?

13. How is Cal's experience living within two genders similar to the immigrant experience of living within two cultures? How is it different?

14. Middlesex is set against the backdrop of several historical events: the war between Greece and Turkey, the rise of the Nation of Islam, World War II, and the Detroit riots. How does history shape the lives of the characters in the novel?

15. What does America represent for Desdemona? For Milton? For Cal? To what extent do you think these characters' different visions of America correspond to their status as first-, second-, and third-generation Greek Americans?

16. What role does race play in the novel? How do the Detroit riots of 1967 affect the Stephanides family and Cal, specifically?

17. Describe Middlesex. Does the house have a symbolic function in the novel?

18. "Everything about Middlesex spoke of forgetting and everything about Desdemona made plain the inescapability of remembering," Cal writes (p. 273). How and when do Desdemona's Old World values conflict with the ethos of America and, specifically, of Middlesex?

19. The final sentence of the novel reads: "I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next" (p. 529). What is next for Cal? Does the author give us reason to believe that Cal's relationship with Julie will be successful?

20. "Watching from the cab, Milton came face-to-face with the essence of tragedy, which is something determined before you're born, something you can't escape or do anything about, no matter how hard you try" (p. 426). According to this definition, is Cal's story a tragedy?

Praise for Middlesex
"Beautifully written . . . The most wonderful thing about this book is Eugenides's ability to feel his way into the girl, Callie, and the man, Cal. It's difficult to imagine any serious male writer of earlier eras so effortlessly transcending the stereotypes of gender."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Brilliant . . . Altogether irresistible . . . Middlesex vibrates with wit." -Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Jeffrey Eugenides is a big and big-hearted talent, and Middlesex is a weird, wonderful novel that will sweep you off your feet."
-Jonathan Franzen

Praise for The Virgin Suicides
"The narrator's hypnotic voice succeeds in transporting us to that mythic realm where fate, not common sense or psychology, holds sway. By turns lyrical and portentous, ferocious and elegiac, The Virgin Suicides insinuates itself into our minds as a small but powerful opera in the unexpected form of a novel."
-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Eugenides is one of those rare writers who can manage sympathy and detachment simultaneously-and work small wonders with words while he's at it. As The Virgin Suicides puts its heroines through hell, its readers, weirdly enough, will be delighted."
-David Gates, Newsweek

About the Author
Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1960, the third son of an American-born father whose Greek parents emigrated from Asia Minor and an American mother of Anglo-Irish descent. In 1988, Mr. Eugenides published his first short story. His first novel, The Virgin Suicides (FSG), was published in 1993. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Best American Short Stories, The Gettysburg Review, and Granta. Mr. Eugenides now lives in Berlin, Germany, with his wife and daughter.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 608 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 608 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    Sated with controvercy and good writing

    Very interesting read. On the surface, a story about a Greek-American hermaphrodite. Calliope/Cal narrates this tale of birth and rebirth.<BR/>Cal describes the family history and traces the journey of a rare, recessive gene over about 80 years. Cal's grandparents flee from their burning home in a small village in Turkey. Desdemona and Lefty, brother and sister, reinvent themselves during their journey to America and get married. When their son marries his cousin, two recessive genes collide. The result? Calliope, raised as a girl until an emergency room doctor notices something different about her. A visit to a famous specialist in New York sets Calliope on a completely new path and she is reborn as Cal.<BR/>Excellent character development and the intricate details of Cal's convoluted family history will keep readers turning pages. The normal adolescent angst and sexual exploration take on a whole new dimension, yet these issues are handled with grace, sensitivity, and, often, humor.<BR/>I did not expect to like this book, as it was on my "have to read" list, rather than the "want to read" list. Nevertheless, Cal's story grabbed me from the very first lines. I found this to be an excellent read.

    35 out of 37 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 19, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Gripping, Moving Page-turner

    I loved this novel. I picked up this fat tome with some trepidation, hearing it was inspired by a memoir discovered and promoted by Foucault by and about a hermaphrodite. I pictured some post-modern turgid avant-garde mess--like Delillo's Underworld, which had been on the same recommendation list. Instead I found what was promised in Underworld's blurbs was fulfilled in Middlesex--a Great American Novel--and a page-turner.

    Strangely, in the tale of a hermaphrodite I didn't find anything remotely freakish, but humanely universal, as if by having this protagonist of an ambiguous gender, Eugenides was able to embrace and bridge both (all?) genders. It's an ambitious work, taking in about 80 years from his Greek immigrant grandparents roots in Turkey, to his parents and childhood in Detroit, to his coming of age on the road from New York City to San Francisco and his current life at a diplomatic posting in Germany. It takes in massacres in Turkey, Ellis Island, the development of America's car culture, Prohibition with it's Speakeasies and bootlegging, The Great Depression, World War II, The Nation of Islam, Detroit race riots and Black/White relations, the sexual revolution, politics, religion--there doesn't seem anything missed, and yet nothing that feels rambling or contrived or caricatured.

    The voice is miraculous. Technically it's a first person narrative, but it breaks the bonds of that point of view into an expansive omniscience in telling its story of three generations: Book One dealing with his grandparents in Turkey and their immigration to Detroit; Book Two with the story of his grandparents and parents in Detroit before his birth; Book Three with his childhood and early adolescence; Book Four with his crisis of identity when doctors discover he's not the girl he was raised to be. Even in those two parts of the book during his own lifetime, the narration has that expansive, feel of third person omniscience, but with the intimacy of the first person voice.

    Eugenides makes me feel for his characters. I ached for Callie--and Cal--both. I worried for him. I hoped for him. I was propelled through the 500 pages not wanting to skip one paragraph and ended it sorry it was over and wanting to read this again sometime--and Eugenides other novel.

    14 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 5, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A Great Creative Epic

    One of the most stimulating and original books I have read. Truly, a modern-day epic. This is one of my favorite books of all time. Highly recommended.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 6, 2013

    ¿I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogl

    “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” Jeffrey Eugenides draws the reader into Middlesex in just the first sentence, and sets the scene for the purpose of the novel. Immediately, the reader is aware that the main character, later named Cal/Calliope, is a hermaphrodite. This is interesting because, BAM, within the book’s first few words the most shocking information about the story is already revealed. Eugenides could have decided to keep this information quiet and completely shock the reader in the middle of the novel when an emergency room technician discovers Cal’s embarrassing truth. However, due to other elements in the story, this strategy would not have been nearly as satisfying. Middlesex is a story of controversy, a story of history, a story of secrets, a story of coming of age. All of which are tied together beautifully. 
    The novel takes a historical, twisting path from Greece in the 1920’s to 1960’s Detroit and 1970’s San Francisco. The story begins by telling Cal’s Grandparents’ history. This occupies a good part of the novel; and I feel if the reader was unaware of Cal’s abnormalities they would be questioning why she was going into such detail with their life story. This is why revealing Cal’s predicament in the first sentence works so well. It is ALWAYS in the back of the reader’s mind. The reader is compelled to find out more about Cal’s sexuality, and why she is like the way she is. Watching her deal with her unique problems makes the novel a one of a kind, modern coming of age tale. 
    Cal also periodically interjects parts of her current life into the novel, which takes place in modern day Europe. Again, the fact that the reader knows of Cal’s troubles makes these parts understandable. However, these sections of the book did not click with me. At one point in the story Cal travels cross country (don’t worry, this does not give away much) and during this journey, I began to question her survival. But, because of the constant interjection of her current life, I knew that death was not an option. My imagination could not run wild. These pieces also called for a complete change of gears, which i was not fond of. One moment I was on a boat somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean in the 1920’s, and the next I was on a subway during the twentieth century. It would have added another element of surprise to the story if Cal’s current life was talked about at the end. 
    Nevertheless, the story contains many layers. This is satisfying because just as the story has different elements, so does the idea of hermaphroditism. Eugenides constantly adds in historical events, such as the fire in Smyrna, Turkey. He also adds even greek culture by paralleling Cal’s story with that of Greek myths. He tells a classic story of immigrants coming to America, while also revealing a modern story about a hermaphrodite. This contrast is written so beautifully. Which is why the story of an uncomfortable topic actually works well. The novel is not just about a Hermaphrodite. Middlesex is about history, about Greek culture, about family secrets, about adventures, about acceptance. 

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2010

    An excellent read. Written well enough that it will be a tough act to follow. There are not too many modern day fiction novelist with this type of talent for word usage and sentence structure. It tickles the senses.

    Much better than most books on the Oprah Book Club Series so don't be discouraged if you are not a fan of the "list". This one is a don't miss.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2008

    I liked it but...

    While reading this book, I realized that what I really was doing was watching a movie. I could actually imagine the scenes playing out on the big screen through Eugenides¿ eccentric writing. The way he wrote Middlesex was appealing he described the setting, the characters, the moods in full detail using various, sometimes hilarious analogies along the way. I am also a big fan of narratives that overlook many generations in one hardcover it is a reminder to all of us that everyone 'our parents, grandparents, so on and so forth' have a story to tell. I enjoyed the plot for what it was worth, since there were times I was engaged enough that I could not put the book down. I was slightly disappointed about the way the book ended, however, because I felt like there was still an unexplained development from his confused youth at 14 to where he was now as a cautious adult male. Overall, maybe I just expected a tad bit more from a book that is inducted into Oprah's book club.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 30, 2011

    Unbelievable, heartwrenching, fascinating

    An absolute must in any library of any age, sex, or profession

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2009

    boring!!!!!!!!

    I just couldnt get into this book..I tried reading the first 100 pages and couldnt read it I was falling asleep.

    4 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2011

    A Fresh Main Character of an Original Epic

    Calliope Stephanides undergoes birth and rebirth as she discovers that she is a hermaphrodite. Yes, this book is interesting. Yes, this book is about a hermaphrodite. But that isn't the one determining factor in making Middlesex memorable. Eugenides writes so beautifully that he instills a certain quality of life into his characters. Cal is so humane, charming enough so that you don't sympathize with him and instead continue reading to learn more about him; this fresh and imaginative character's flaw is just another stepping stone in his life. Even Desdemona and Lefty's incestuous relationship wrenches your heart, being so genuine yet sinful. Eugenides writes this book in a thoughtful perspective; it's filled with love and empty of regrets and resentment. Middlesex is certainly an unforgettable book, moving your soul as you stayed fixed to your seat reading this heartfelt tale.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2010

    AMAZING!

    I am reading oprahs book club books and I was looking for something else but ended up with this. It didn't really appeal to me but I absolutely loved this book. I couldn't put it down. Everything about it was amazing and I was crying by the end. I recommend it to anyone.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 25, 2009

    Middlesex Book Review

    Middlesex contains a large array of imformation including the early years of Ford Motor Company in Detroit, the burning of Smyrna by Turkish troops in 1922, the nation and culture of Islam, as well the main topic -- hermaphroditism. Cal, the main character, on the first page tells that he was born and raised as a girl but was revealed as a teenager to be a boy, in genetic and chromosomal terms. His complications are due to a genetic mutation kept alive by incestuous marriages in a tiny village high on Mt. Olympus. Although, Cal does not believe that the scientific version of genetics and the ancient Greek notion of fate can explain his life or anyone else's for that matter. A common rags-to-riches theme is conveyed as the story tells the life of Cal's grandparents, then parents, then his own. America is shown as a place of opportunity and fortune and the title, Middlesex is accounted for the name of the street their mansion is on in Grosse Point, Michigan and it is also for Cal's own sexual conflicts. The book is eventful, unpredictable, eager to entertain, but missing the main character throughout the first 215 pages. And this happens when Cal's moment of transsexual truth comes when a hippie doctor decides to remove his testicles and treat him with hormones, give him surgically the nature that nurture has already dictated and make an honest woman of him. Soon after the procedure, he sets out for California on a journey that echoes closely his grandparents' flight from Smyrna. Intertwined throughout the novel, we get a taste of dry humor; for instance, Cal calls his brother "Chapter Eleven" and the "peep show" that occurs in San Francisco is wickedly humorous. The book is a symbol for anyone struggling with their sexuality and was well thought out and planned since it took Eugenides 10 years to write. The novel leads us to the future where particularities are what make us human and that takes precedence over the limitations of female and male as gender.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 6, 2009

    Terrific read. Writing is superlative. Topic very, very thought provoking.

    A real treasure in so many ways.

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2006

    Ho Hum

    There was way too much detail on the past history of her family, and not enough info that delved into her 'prolem'. The ending had an interesting twist, but if you are an impatient reader, this is not for you. Also there were a lot of noticable typo's.

    2 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2013

    Unbelievable...unforgettable

    I read this book a number of years ago.there is no other book this I read that compares to it. It is the story of a person from Michigan whose story goes back before they were even born. The author did a wonderful job at completely drawing one into the story and its characters. This is a must read for every one. It deals with taboo issues, American history...I don't want to say more and ruin the novel.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2013

    Wonderful

    One of the best books I've read that truly shows the main characters thoughts as an individual. I would definitely read it time and time again, and suggest it as a interesting read to friends.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2013

    Great read!!

    This is an unbelievable book. I dont want to reveal too much about the plot, but the transformation that the characters go through is incredible. This book will not only make you laugh and cry but will make you stop and think about how you truly feel. It is an absolute must read!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2013

    Wonderfully Unique

    I've noticed a couple low reviews saying this book was dull and difficult to read. My experience was nothing of the sort, as I found the tale completely captivating and unexpected. I tore through the entire novel within a matter of a couple days. My grandmother loaned it to my mother who then gave it to me, so three generations of readers recommend it to others.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2012

    Beautiful story

    Great story - this offers a glimpse of American history while raising poignant thoughts about what being intersexed means.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 26, 2012

    Middelsex has a beautiful use of language and depicts the dichotomy of telling ones own story

    Middelsex has a beautiful use of language and depicts the dichotomy of telling ones own story by including the historical element of the lives that came before and how it influenced. I did find a few areas that read a bit slow and at times and awkward; however, I think that has more to do with my discomfort with the incestual aspect.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2012

    Best i have read this year!!!

    I have not read a book so far this year that comes close to the beautifully descriptive pages of this book. Far more than understanding characters,i actually found myself sympathizing and living their lives through these pages. An absolute joy to read.....thank you for sharing your story and further educating our world....

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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