Thursday, December 12, 2013

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

You could call this a different kind of coming-of-age novel. Or a historical novel. Or whatever Mendel's Dwarf is called. Curiously, my copy of Mendel's Dwarf was classified as a "romance" by the library it came from. I don't think this is the right category, although both books do involve romance.

Calliope Helen Stephanides was born twice, you'll read in the first line of the book. Cally was a girl until age fourteen, when she learned that in fact she was born with a condition sometimes called pseudohermaphroditism. She was born with the XY chromosome, identifying her as a male, but she had elements of both sexes. How does this happen? Eugenides is happy to tell us, in this case, that it was a rare genetic disorder passed on down from Cally-Cal's grandparents. They were brother and sister and carried the gene(s) for this condition.

We get to meet Cal's grandparents first, when they were young and lived in a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus, not far from the old city of Smyrna. In 1922, after the end of the First World War, when the area was occupied by the Greeks, it was invaded by the Turkish army. Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna died in what became known as The Great Fire of Smyrna. Desdemona and Lefty, Cal's grandparents, barely escaped. They ended up in the U.S., in Detroit, living with relatives.

It is not uncommon in these cultures for cousins to marry and have children. Sister and brother, not so much. When Desdemona learned that there is a good reason for this ban, she feared what her offspring might become.

We thus get to know her children as well. And finally, their children.

Cal's story is interwoven with the tales of his antecedents and their lives. Their stories are laced with a healthy dose of history. And so it is that while the book is 529 pages long (paperback edition) the story of Cally-Cal is actually pretty light.

I do find it interesting when actual historical events are included in good novels, particularly when those events are not well-known. I am less interested in lives set in a general historical period, where a lot of guesswork goes on. So I found the lives of the grandparents and their silk "farm" and the Great Fire, and the lives of their children in the U.S., interesting and informative. But my curse is that I want so much from characters, and I felt that while there certainly are well-rounded characters there are just so many of them!

It's an absorbing book, worth reading for the atmosphere and events, the sense of history, and for the information on "hermaphrodites", however they are called. It leaves open where one would go from here, having been both female and male.

No comments: