Jason's Reviews > Middlesex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
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Jun 29, 12

bookshelves: for-kindle, 2011, reviewed, thrill-me-chill-me-fulfill-me
Read in September, 2011

Alright, it’s high time I review this hermaphroditic little masterpiece.

Being a pseudo-biochemist (pseudo in the sense that I only pretend to be a biochemist, whereas in reality I write scientific development reports and other documents that no one will ever read but which I’ve convinced myself are just as fulfilling as doing real science), I find the premise of this novel to be incredibly interesting.

5α-Reductase deficiency is an autosomal recessive disorder; autosomal meaning that the gene coding for 5α-Reductase is not located on a sex chromosome (X or Y), and recessive meaning that one would need two copies of a mutated form of the gene in order to express the disease trait. Since we as a biological species inherit one copy of every gene from each of our parents, it would not be enough to have only one mutated form of this gene because a single “good” copy is all that’s required for proper function. Because of this, the proper-functioning gene is considered to be completely dominant over the mutated form in terms of phenotypic expression.

Here is a Punnett square showing basic concepts of Mendelian genetics:

Each form of the gene is called an allele: “B” represents the dominant allele, or the healthy gene form; “b” represents the recessive allele.
If both parents are phenotypically “normal,” the only way they would be able to have any offspring with this disease is if they were both carriers, meaning they each have one dominant and one recessive allele. In this way, they are said to be heterozygous for this trait, the genotype of which is represented as “Bb.” For any child they conceive, there would exist a 25% chance of that child inheriting two recessive alleles. This is referred to as being homozygous recessive, the genotype of which is represented as “bb.” Only homozygous recessive children will express the disease.

Since the protagonist of this novel has unluckily inherited both recessive alleles, one from each of his parents, he ends up with the disorder. So what is this disorder, exactly? The 5α-Reductase gene codes for an enzyme which converts testosterone into a potent sex steroid called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, which plays a fundamental role in the formation of the male sex organs. Since disease subjects do not have the ability to convert testosterone into DHT, they end up with too much testosterone and not enough DHT, which in some cases leads to the formation of ambiguous genitalia.

These ambiguous genitalia form one of the many, but probably the most interesting, subjects of the novel. The author begins by tracing the history of these recessive alleles back through the family lineage before elegantly leading us to the budding of the protagonist’s crocus: his ambiguous little penis stub (yes, you should click there; and yes, you should see that movie). Perhaps not surprisingly, the historical tracing reveals some ancestral inbreeding, as well. And since the protagonist is still genotypically male (even though he doesn’t know it and neither do his parents or anybody else), the real fun begins when he enters puberty.

When I met with my book club to talk about this fantastic novel, a few pronoun choices were used for describing the protagonist: he, she, he-she-it, etc. But all joking aside, the protagonist is male. He is male by genotypic definition (he has two healthy sex chromosomes, one of which is a Y), and he sexually identifies himself as male which is consistent with other real-life sufferers of 5α-Reductase deficiency.
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Quotes Jason Liked

Jeffrey Eugenides
“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”
Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex


Comments (showing 1-50 of 54) (54 new)


Janice love this book!


message 2: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten So the parent's can't point fingers at each other yelling this had to come from YOUR side of the family. Great review and a nice clarification.


message 3: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Great stuff. I NEED to read this, my GR friend reviews are 5-stars across the board on this book.


Jason Thanks, Jeff. Hope you didn't mind my genetics lesson tangent.

Steve, I was just thinking that you would love this.


message 5: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich I'll make it a priority then!


message 6: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Spicer wrote: "s.penkevich wrote: "Great stuff. I NEED to read this, my GR friend reviews are 5-stars across the board on this book."

This is my favorite novel, for what it's worth."


In that case, DOUBLE priority ha


message 7: by Catie (new)

Catie Really great review, from one kind-of-sort-of biochemist to another. Love the Punnett square! And I also love that movie.


Mary I read this years before GR, but it still haunts me. Amazing book for so many reasons. As a side note, I saw "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" live a couple of weeks ago, funny stuff.


Jason Thanks for the movie recommendation, Elizabeth! I think I had heard of XXY, but I haven't seen it.

Catie: are you in science, too? I MISS THE LAB!! I'm tired of writing documents all day, I hate it.


Jason That's right, it's a broadway musical too. That movie is faaantastic.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Five stars! Zowie. Thanks for the explanation of the...thingummy...disorder.


Steve The way I have it figured, a couple of rare alleles in your genetic makeup made for a homozygous ability to both know all this science and to explain it so clearly. You're awfully good at this.

And a quick note to Spenky: you'll never go wrong with both Jason and Scott recommending one.


Jason Who is Scott? I may need to check out his reviews...


message 14: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich There should be an amazon app that when multiple GR friends give a book 5 stars, it orders it for me.
But then I'd more broke. Well, more broke.


message 15: by Joel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joel Jason wrote: "That's right, it's a broadway musical too. That movie is faaantastic."

off-broadway. technically.

anyway. i liked this book, and i liked taking genetics in college.


message 16: by David (new)

David I'm not smart enough to read this review.


Steve Jason wrote: "Who is Scott? I may need to check out his reviews..."

Before he changed his GR name to Spicer, he was known to his friends here as Scott.

I've noticed Steve is not a very distinct name around these parts either. At least not many others have a lazy man's Rubick's Cube as a picture.


message 18: by JK (new) - added it

JK FUCK PUNNETT SQUARES. >:(


Also, I like to pretend I'm a neuropsychologist because I'm an author on a published article. Pretending is fun.


message 19: by Jason (last edited Jun 29, 2012 04:44PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jason I guess I'm mostly pretending to be pretending...I'm probably just bitter because I've only done about a teaspoon of science in the past year and a half. I miss the lab...

Joel wrote: "off-broadway. technically."

After I wrote it, I was thinking of going back and changing it to "stage musical" to make it more generic, but then I thought it would be more funner to wait for someone to call me on it. Thanks, Joel!

What did you go to school for, btw?


Sarah (Warning: Potentially Off-Topic) Nice review - I always like a good Punnett Square!


message 21: by Joel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joel not genetics.


David Now, why is Jamie Lee Curtis intersexual?


Jason Wait, whaat?? That's not true, he is not!


Sarah (Warning: Potentially Off-Topic) David wrote: "Now, why is Jamie Lee Curtis intersexual?"

I remember that rumor, but couldn't remember why she was supposed to be. But Snopes says there's nothing to back the story up: http://www.snopes.com/movies/actors/j...


message 25: by Catie (new)

Catie Jason wrote: "Catie: are you in science, too? I MISS THE LAB!! I'm tired of writing documents all day, I hate it."

Yep, I just checked and I apparently have a degree in Biochemistry. But I haven't really used it in a while. I miss the lab too!


Jason Cool, nice to meet a fellow biochemist on here. I also have a Bull.Shit. degree in Biochemistry. But apparently I've become better suited (lately) to FDA compliance stuff.


message 27: by knig (new) - rated it 3 stars

knig I read this maybe three years ago, so rusty. But. I remember being beyond fascinated and spending hours on google trying to parse it: it opened up a whole new world I never knew existed, well beyond middlesex. Here is what stuck with me:
1. AIS: as you work in the field, 'nuff said. apparently a number of (undisclosed) hollywood actressess have this. I sometimes wonder. Sean Young? But that is nothing, compared to the following, which I think, um, just shattered my mind:
2. mosaic keryotype.
I'm going to just say it: I can't get my head around this. It is probably the most striking, amazing concept I have come across. In as much as I have always lived in a world informed by definitive values of male and female. So now. One cell is XX. The other XY. Maybe one is XXY? or XYY? (yeah, I know klinefelte). The idea of a human being, being in equal measure male and female...I don't know. It awes me. Why is no one talking about this?


message 28: by mark (new)

mark monday my brain hurts from this review! can't we talk about social services or public policy or health care reform or astrology instead? that is much more in my comfort zone.


Sarah (Warning: Potentially Off-Topic) Knig-o-lass wrote: " One cell is XX. The other XY. Maybe one is XXY? or XYY? (yeah, I know klinefelte). The idea of a human being, being in equal measure male and female...I don't know. It awes me. Why is no one talking about this?"

There are several possibilities, XX, XY, XXY (Klinefelter's), XYY, XO (Turner's), and then the syndromes like what is described in this book, where a person is genotypically XY, but didn't get the correct balance of sex hormones. It's kind of mind-boggling, really. Many of these conditions have other non sex-related problems too, though.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways I do have one question before I blow this popstand for the night, an entire bottle of Veuve Clicquot and three peanut butter brownies iced in fudge cream cheese buttercream on board: What makes this book 5 star? I read it and found it charitably 2 stars. Tedious, self-consciously writerly twaddle wrapped in Iowa Writers Workshop prose, indistinguishable from a zillion other fancy-pantsy snoozefests.

What am I missing? Clearly it spoke to you, Jason. Elucidate for me how it did so, please! I am outside the window watching the Cratchits eating that goose, with that cloying little cripple saying "gawd bless us every one," and wishing for a molotov cocktail. I clearly am not getting something. What? What?


Jason Richard!!

I did love this. And I regret that I didn't really go into it in my review because my fascination with genetics displaced all else.

I loved this book for so many reasons. I loved the story of Cal/Calliope, yes. But I also loved the Greek history of his grandparents, I loved the multi-generational family drama (seeeeeeecrets, as karen would say), I love coimng-of-ages (when they're done well), and I was interested in how Cal/Calliope dealt with his syndrome and how he figured out that there was something different/unique about him and how he dealt with it and ran away from it and ultimately came to terms with it. I also loved the whole Greek cultural background thing, and I loved the interesting side story of Milton and what happens to him.

This is what a 5 star book does to me. It changes me and it stays with me.

Also, the writing was pretty damn decent.


message 32: by Joel (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joel not all books are for all people?


Jason Sarah wrote: "Knig-o-lass wrote: " One cell is XX. The other XY. Maybe one is XXY? or XYY? (yeah, I know klinefelte). The idea of a human being, being in equal measure male and female...I don't know. It awes me...."

Yay! I love a fellow scientist. Sarah, what's your background??

Knig-o-lass, sexual disorders are very interesting, and there are so many of them. But as Sarah points out, this one was not sex-linked: meaning, there was a normal set of X & Y. But yes, as far as sex-linked disorders go, there are plenty of them: klinefelters, turners, and super-male (XYY) which you hadn't mentioned. They are all super interesting but sooo easily explained by meiosis gone wrong (google:meiosis). Down's is another disorder related to improper separation of gametes, although it is autosomal instead of sex-linked.


Jason mark monday & kowalski, you are liars. You are both smarter than me and fully capable of understanding this, you simply pretenddddddd.


Jason Joel wrote: "not all books are for all people?"

This is not true. This book is for all people. Richard is just silly.


Richard Reviles Censorship Always in All Ways Jason wrote: "Richard!!

I did love this. And I regret that I didn't really go into it in my review because my fascination with genetics displaced all else.


I liked that part better than any part of the book.

I loved this book for so many reasons. I loved the story of Cal/Calliope, yes. But I also loved the Greek history of his grandparents,

Both my stars are for this facet.

I loved the multi-generational family drama (seeeeeeecrets, as karen would say), I love coimng-of-ages (when they're done well), and I was interested in how Cal/Calliope dealt with his syndrome and how he figured out that there was something different/unique about him and how he dealt with it and ran away from it and ultimately came to terms with it. I also loved the whole Greek cultural background thing, and I loved the interesting side story of Milton and what happens to him.

This is what a 5 star book does to me. It changes me and it stays with me.

Also, the writing was pretty damn decent."


I thought the writing was average at my most charitable best. I cared nothing about Milton. It changed me into a snoring, drooling lump.

So it spoke to you, and it spoke of beauty and passion and winning. Thanks for letting me know. I just could not fathom what earned five stars from you.


Sarah (Warning: Potentially Off-Topic) Jason wrote: "Yay! I love a fellow scientist. Sarah, what's your background??"

I'm a physician, but not in an area related to this. All of this stuff is reaching back to my school days for me, but I always found these conditions fascinating. I took undergrad psychology classes dealing with these topics, and also had an endocrine rotation in a clinic for people undergoing sex changes (surgical and medical). While that clinic wasn't dealing with these conditions necessarily, it did bring up a lot of interesting psychological and biological issues related to human sexuality, as you might imagine.


message 38: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue Loved this book and interesting scientific view of it!


message 39: by Mark (new) - added it

Mark Woohoo, Hedwig shout-out!


message 40: by Traveller (new) - added it

Traveller Jason wrote: "Being a pseudo-biochemist (pseudo in the sense that I only pretend to be a biochemist, whereas in reality I write scientific development reports and other documents that no one will ever read but which I’ve convinced myself are just as fulfilling as doing real science),"

Ha ha, i love that.. it sounds just like my cousin with her PhD in physics and her job at a science magazine. :)


message 41: by Noelle (last edited Aug 23, 2012 08:41AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Noelle McCoy thanks for the explanation! I enjoyed biology in college, especially the genetics...how interesting! I'll have to read this book now...


Jason Yay science!


Rhianna Quick note before I get into other comments: You're not really missing ANYTHING in the lab. Or at least you wouldn't be missing anything if you were in MY lab... this place is where fun (and intelligence) goes to die.

Allisen recommended this book to me and I don't remember much about it other than thinking "WTF" when I was done. The genetics were cool, the story was interesting, but man... WTF?


Jason I read this book on account of Allisen, too. This, and Rebecca. She's 2 for 2. (Actually, she's 2 for 3 because she also recommended My Friend Leonard; hey, nobody's perfect.)

I do miss the lab, though. I've been basically doing documentation for the past year and a half. I used to be on my feet all day and come home with energy. Now I sit on my ass all day and come home tired. It is bizarre.


Rhianna I liked it, just couldn't believe half the stuff that happened, kind of like the time she passed along some John Irving books.

I'm doing some sort of bio-immuno-chemistry diagnostic stuff, which basically means I check my email for hours at a time and read books on my iPhone. Occasionally I'll go into the lab for brief 10 minute periods to switch chemicals. Way different from my days in real labs. I think the lack of feeling productive is what gets me.


Jason Rhianna wrote: "I think the lack of feeling productive is what gets me."

Yes! I think that is exactly it. It is mentally unchallenging, so it leaves me feeling exhausted. Sort of like how you feel if you spend a whole Sunday sleeping, you kind of feel physically tired afterwards.


message 47: by Carey (new) - added it

Carey Shea As usual, an amazing review. I have it in my to-read list but it has gotten so large that it's going to take forever to read the books I have in that shelf. The book sounds very interesting from your review.


Jason Looks like you've found all my favorites, Carey. This one in particular seems universally acclaimed on Goodreads.


message 49: by Carey (new) - added it

Carey Shea I've noticed that and that is why I put it in my to-reads shelf. Your review convinced me to read it sooner. Thanks.


message 50: by Laura (new) - rated it 1 star

Laura Ellison I am just getting into the story but wanted to say I really enjoyed your review. I am a lover of Punnet Squares and have used them to figure out some of my own genetics. I'm a carrier of "fish skin disease" so if I ever meet a lucky guy we'll be doing a Punnet to figure out the possibility of passing it along.


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