Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Page Count: 530 pages
By Lynne Bevan DeMichele
(UMCom) -- Yes, growing up is difficult. But try to imagine how much harder it would be for someone like Callie Stephanides, who carries a rare genetic anomaly called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. Callie is a hermaphrodite. Having both male and female sex organs is rare, but it is a very real physiological condition occurring in one of some 14,000 births. In Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex, it serves as a metaphor for “otherness,” for being different.
At the same time, the book presents a meaningful opportunity for people of good faith to engage in exploration of what makes each of us unique, including our sexuality. In today’s social climate, when all issues relating to sexuality seem to be controversial, such an extraordinary and well-written novel can be a door through which many of us engage in such issues and explore our own attitudes.
From the book’s opening scene, you’ll find the usual notions of what is thought to be normal sexuality turned upside down. The principle character, Callie, is a study in the very real emotional and psychological effects of not being “normal.” She is an appealing and introspective child and tells her astonishing story in her own voice. She begins as an adult by first looking back, “I was born twice…. 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.”
Callie’s story wastes no time with self-pity or misplaced feelings of guilt as it follows an anomalous gene through three generations of the Stephanides family. The story begins in a remote mountain village and builds to an astonishing conclusion decades later in a deluxe Detroit suburb. Calliope Stephanides was born and raised as a girl. But as she begins to mature, she comes to realize her uniqueness has a name: hermaphrodite. Once a pretty, dark-eyed girl, she grows into a tall, increasingly hairy, "aquiline-nosed, Roman-coinish person." Her uncomprehending and deeply dismayed parents take her off to a specialist for help. Dr. Peter Luce correctly diagnoses Callie's problem but believes that her 14 years of living as a female should override all other considerations.
As was once a common practice with children having ambiguous genitals, Dr. Luce’s solution is to assign a specific sexuality to Callie, and he prescribes "feminizing surgery" and hormone treatments. Callie senses this is wrong, and she has a sudden epiphany. Leaving a note to her parents – "I am not a girl, I'm a boy" – she sheds her feminine clothes, cuts her hair and hits the road, embarking on a very bumpy journey toward self-discovery.
What might have been presented as a kind of freak show is instead a very human story told with sensitivity and wisdom, its narrative suffused with gentle humor. Eugenides’ non-judgmental love and respect for the human struggle is apparent in every scene. His eye for rich details of culture and everyday life delights, and we see it in everything from an old Greek folk method of determining the sex of an unborn baby to the courting scenes of two unlikely lovers. The social context in which the narrative is set is engaging, moving from an insular mountain village in Asia Minor through the trials of immigrant life in 1920s Detroit, the racial tensions of the 1960s, adolescent exploration in an exclusive prep school and on into contemporary suburban life.
In his/her new identity, the protagonist describes the unique engine of the story, "My genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me," Callie – now “Cal” – says at one point. "Some people inherit houses; others paintings or highly insured violin bows. . . . I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed."
Our bodies, Eugenides’ novel persuasively argues, are not necessarily ourselves, at least not the whole of one’s essential self. Infinitely more important, as Christians have always believed, is one’s soul. Cal/Callie is a very complex composite, a matchless individual. As are we all.
Lynne Bevan DeMichele, a former communications director for the United Methodist Church in Indiana, is a freelance writer living in Gig Harbor, Wash.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.