Book review: Middlesex by J. Eugenides

Hello people of the Universe !

I hope you’re having a good time with your family and friends at this time of the year. Celebrate love, kindness and the new year with joy. May 2016 be wonderful.

It is the first time I speak about a book here and I am starting with a big one: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (high-five GrokNation, as always). First, I don’t think you need to have read the book to keep reading my post. You will discover the characters through my eyes and understand why this book is important for me. To be very succinct, you discover a lovely Greek-American girl, Calliope, through three different but very related stories: her grandparents’, her parents’ and her own one. From the escape from Smyrna, Turkey, to Berlin, Germany, including several cities of the United States, you follow the path of a young teenager who struggles with her gender identity. Well, it is not totally true. She first struggles with her sexual orientation before finding out about her hermaphrodism, at the age of 14. To be very precise, Callie is an intersex man with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, meaning he has some feminine traits but, for example, will never have his period. He is the narrator of his own story and goes by Cal. With his eyes of a grown man of the beginning of the 21st century, he pictures his evolution and recounts what has made him who he is now.

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To be honest, the book in itself is not my favorite. I am not a huge fan of the writing (I read it in French and it may be the reason, though) and all the story around Calliope’s family was too long. I don’t know what I expected but I wondered if I was reading something about intersexuality or immigration. It turned out that both are related, especially in the main character’s mind. Quickly, you learn that Cal’s grandparents are siblings and his parents are cousins. What I would also consider a biological consequence, Cal tends to connect his hermaphrodism with stroke of bad luck and destiny, too. It is something like “My family commited a sin and everything has its price: I got punished(am I caricatural?). He is not angry or resentful, he is resigned and accepts his situation.

Apart from that, I encourage you to read Middlesex. I went several times to the library at my university to read it at noon instead of staying at the cafeteria. I had a sandwich in one hand and a pencil in the other one. Several pages got turned down and square brackets now create a path through the book. My favorite moments are Callie’s teenage years. I felt like I was finally entering her thoughts, getting involved in the process of the discovery of her body and feelings. I wanted to know how she would react and why. I couldn’t help combine my literary analysis and the messages the author was passing on. For all of these reasons, here are the thoughts that came to mind and I wanted to share them with you.

 Get rid of the past or it will lead your life

Cal goes back and forth. It is the way he built his story. I don’t think it is a decision of the author to keep the suspense going, but more a kind of hesitation from the character. He beats about the bush.

Cal’s life is ruled by the desire to escape. Like when his grandparents ran away from Turkey. Like when his father enrolled in the army. My grandparents had fled their home because of a war. Now, some fifty-two years later, I was fleeing myself. This quote is the perfect description of Cal’s life: a line of evasions. Every time something goes wrong, he uses the past to escape, as if he couldn’t face the situation. I wonder if going back in time is a way for him to be happier. Has he found his place in his new “body”? Is he able to leave Callie? I wonder if he keeps thinking his new identity is not real, as if he was stuck between the person he was and the person he wants to be. Right in the middle, after all these years. As if he still was questionning his choice to follow his genotype. I was a new creation. I was playing dress-up, as teenagers do.

Contrary to these deep thoughts, the past is easier to tell. It is already written, you can’t change it and you went through it so many times it doesn’t even bother you anymore. You can reflect on it because you accepted its existence. Thinking about his present situation seems to be very complicated, Cal seems very uncomfortable and disconnected from his own story sometimes.

But apart from using the past as a momentary lapse in concentration, Cal looks for answers in his family’s background. He has the biological explanation (incests) but it doesn’t seem to be enough. What is the mystic, spiritual reason? I don’t know if he does it on purpose, but he can’t help reproducing what already occured. There is this scene, when he decides to cut off his hair to look like a boy. It sounds like a penitence, another way to punish himself, and he feels the same pain as his grandmother when she had to cut her hair when her life changed and she moved to America. He always tries to make connections between what happened to his grandparents and what is going on in his life. Answers are not easy to find. Cal wants to escape but imprisons himself in the past.

It is a vicious circle…

… As if people possessed the history of the world within themselves. This is how I picture Cal’s life.

Something got broken

Hermaphrodite —1. One having the sex organs and many of the secondary sex characteristics of both male and female. 2. Anything comprised of a combination of diverse or contradictory elements. See synonyms at MONSTER.

Stylistic impact. If we were in a movie, I would picture Callie’s finger going through the page and stopping on the word, wrapped up in silence.

Broken.

Total detachment from a broken character. Cal doesn’t keep writing in the first person. He says “she”, “her”. He tries to get away from any hurtful feeling. It is like Callie was divided into two people: is it the separation of the man and the woman inside of her/him? Between the old and the new “I”? This is an audacious interpretation but it definitely is a separation.

Callie got cracked apart at that exact moment. It was the signs of her death. During almost the whole book, you follow Callie and her experiences through Cal’s eyes. It is his own story, he knows where he wants to lead you, he knows everything about Callie and you know since the beginning he is a hermaphrodit. But at some point, Callie has to find out and it was one of the saddest part of the book. Not because she learnt why she was different, but because nobody took the time to explain to her what was really going on and what all of this meant. There was so much love in [her father]’s eyes that it was impossible to look for truth. There was a rationalisation of her “problem”. The doctor who followed her tried to determine her gender by using porn films and seeing if she was more interested in the boy or in the girl. For Callie’s parents, it became a question of surgery, not more.

I was a new creation.  Here is where I lost Cal. I didn’t understand what he was doing, neither why he was doing it. He escaped from his parents. Why did he run away instead of facing the situation? What was he looking for? For me, he was not only escaping from his former life, but also from his own body. He needed to discover it, to create his own gait. He ended up showing his naked body, swimming in a kind of pool, with curious people looking at his curious anatomy. He became a work of art, and what I consider a total disconnection from his body may be a way to find himself and to accept who he is. To repare what got broken.

Was I a boy since the beginning?

I was curious when I was encouraged to read this novel. I was born a girl, I am girl, and even if I struggle with my body like everyone, I barely faced such a situation. What was important for me here was to follow Cal’s process through his discovery.

What I noticed is his dual point of view on genders. I mean, as a teenager he seems to believe men and women are two diametrically opposed entities (I precise as a teenager to refer to Callie’s mind, before his transformation, because we all know it is not only a matter of age). Men and women can’t communicate, they can’t have the same psychological functionment. All his questions turn around what is innate, what is learned. If I could understand men’s intention at that time, does it mean I was secretly a boy? If I could attract a man, it means I was girl, right? You know, this kind of questions.

There is no answer. Even me, right now, while I am sharing my own point of view, I can’t give your a proper feedback. Biology can’t explain everything with hormones, chromosonal sex, gonadal sex, external genitals and such.

I am still wondering why he decided to become a man.  Nothing forced him to do so. It is frustrating not to have answers when it is a novel, a fictive character, and you know the author could tell more about it. But I read this story as a real one, so not finding answers is part of life.

At least, something deep got my attention. Gender was like a native tongue; it didn’t exist before birth but was imprinted in the brain during childhood. Children learn to speak Male or Female the way they learn to speak English or French. I agree and it was important to write it down. Our societies give functions to each gender, they educate them according to what “they are made for”. They dress them, make them think and act a certain way. Gender became not  only a physical characteristic but also a way to think and apprehend the world. It is something we learn, something determined and these patterns are why we struggle to be different and accept diversity. The beauty of diversity.

I hope you read between the lines and find the messages I wanted to share. Live your life fully, don’t make the past a burden, keep confidence in yourself and know that you are not alone. I leave you here, hoping for you to have a wonderful year, respect each other and open your arms to every adventure.

Love and glitter,                                                                                                                         Marion

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One thought on “Book review: Middlesex by J. Eugenides

  1. Excellent review. I have heard of the book “Middlesex,” but never read it. However, I have taken several gender/sex courses when I was still in college, and I can understand the complicated situation around this narrative. It is very difficult to separate between sex and gender, as they are so deeply ingrained in our minds at a young age. When the two don’t match up, it can be very distressing, especially to the individual. Ideally, sex and gender should be questioned, and opened up to include more possibilities besides male and female, man and woman, respectively. With the current status of society, though, it may not be possible to completely eradicate such structures which have been around for a long time. But seeing from the small changes that have occurred in recent years (e.g. the “Other” option for gender on platforms like Facebook and other applications), things might turn around when it comes to acceptance, personally and socially.

    /end long comment

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