Do a person's innate qualities prevail over his or her experience? Do they shape its being and course of life decisively or is the knowledge he or she acquires from the environment the thing that draws his/her fate? In a word, the nature versus nurture debate, as the polymath Francis Galton put it. Somewhere in-between, free will got easily overlooked, yet, in Jeffrey Eugenides's book, Middlesex, -one of the most amazing books I have ever read- such factors do no limit the main character's self-determination. Whether a gift or a burden, intersex cannot be denied or overlooked and though it outlines a certain path in life for Cal/Callie, choices are never limited.
And I am back to Tolstoy -“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”- who apparently both wrote and read good literature. In Middlesex, which is both the condition and the name of the street where the main character, Cal/Callie, grew up, journeys define the characters' lives that find themselves at the mercy of a recessive gene. Sex and inheritance seem to be connected in mysterious ways, shaping the life journey of the Stephanides clan from Greece to America, from typical to middlesex. Genetics mischievously rewrites the destiny of three generations, starting with a dark secret and ending with the miraculous birth of a creature that shares two genders, two worlds and two lives. Besides the 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, Cal/Callie is the embodiment of each and everyone of us, searching for an identity that could clothe our body and define our lives. We may not be pseudohermaphrodites like Callie, but we are all bound to confront the same questions related to our individuality. Both question and answer are tricky, thus the fortunate ones give their uniqueness a voice, whereas others spend a lifetime struggling to come to terms with the devils within.
Calliope Stephanides's gender rises a debate in the Detroit house of her pregnant mother, Tessie, her father Milton, who is anxious for a girl, and her grandmother, Desdemona, whose magical silver spoon indicates the unborn child is a boy. Calliope is born to shatter all doubt and is raised as a girl until she has an accident and it is revealed, at 14, she is a hermaphrodite. A man's mind trapped in a woman's body, Callie/Cal runs away to avoid surgery: ''Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome''. His/her journey is more than a bildungsroman, a historical novel, a tragedy or comedy, it is the story of gene through time. The gene seems to have a mind of its own, raising the striking question of the red thin line between destiny and DNA configuration. To what extent are we the result of genetical combinations and the making of our own self? The answer is somewhere in-between our choices. Desdemona and Lefty are first brother and sister before embracing their roles of perfect strangers falling in love. Their arrival in the land of all possibilities does not change their infidelity, since betrayal is echoed in the choices of the next generation. Milton, their son, marries his cousin, Tessie and the circle of neurochemical giving in repeats itself. The ruthless Greek gods make their presence felt in the veins of their mortal subjects regardless of time, space or morals.
What makes this book exceptional? Well, there is its fine irony, to begin with. Cal/Callie has a double perspective upon things- a feminine intuition and a male's grasp of history. The first person gets easily switched with the third person and this shift is not tiring or disruptive; on the contrary, both characters have humour and a sense of self-irony. Cal/Callie does not take matters too tragically and the shift from emotional to journalistic style adds up to the richness of the story. Also, Middlesex is a versatile novel that, similar to the dual nature of the main character, mirrors different themes such as rebirth, racism, identity crisis, gender or the American dream. It is that kind of book that has it all - excellent story, well-built characters, Greek mythology, a historical approach and so much more. It feels as a journey through time, across continents, cultures, religions, a journey from the outer world into the vivid inner world of a character on which both heredity and time left their mark. This is a novel about the making of a nation: from Prohibition and the Great Depression to World War II, the troubled times of 1967 riots, the Flower Power movement, Watergate and the energy crisis. America lives in the faces and choices of the Stephanides family. It is not always the perfect picture that mirrors in their eyes, yet it is an honest one. It is a picture of fight, tolerance, acceptance, strength and, above all, love. Love salvages and dooms all living creatures and particularly favours the brave. To them all!