Kelly's Reviews > Middlesex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
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Sep 14, 07

Read in September, 2007

** spoiler alert ** Would have given this book two more stars except for one resounding disappointment I can't get past. I thought that one of the most important aspects of the book was entirely skipped over by the author without any explanation.

*Spoiler Alert* It's probably not a spoiler, but what I have to say may alleviate some of the intrigue - you have been warned.

I really, really, really wanted to know why Calliope 'chose' to live life as Cal once she learned that she was a biological male. It was, arguably, the most important and perhaps only choice she->he had in the entire book, and the author just skips that part. This transitionless transition to living as a male stands in stark comparison to the rest of the book which does a competent job of developing each of the main characters throughout their lives...and for every other seemingly inexplicable action the reader understands the characters enough to know WHY they acted in a certain way.

The Calliope->Cal change is so abrupt in the book, and lacks any of the personal insight that the rest of the book teems with...it's almost like the author got tired of writing by the time the transition comes about (quite late in the book), and he just wanted to be done with it. Perhaps the author didn't expand on the "choice" to live as Cal because his point is supposed to be that it really wasn't a choice. But I would even have liked to know why Calliope didn't think living as Cal was a choice and was instead a biological or personal inevitability...but no aspect of her choice/lack of choice was addressed.

Inappropriate foreshortening aside, I do think that the writing is often quite eloquent. I certainly would have appreciated fewer of the cliche metaphors for change/new beginnings/etc. The author does take the obvious to new heights, however, when he would state for the reader too obtuse to understand that the egg being described actually represents an immigrant beginning life in her new land by ending the paragraph with something like, "...you see she was that egg."
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Robin I'll give you my copy this weekend!


Robin I agree with you, Kelly. Eugenides seems to know his craft, and this does seem to be an anomaly, albeit a big one. Maybe you're on to Cal not thinking it was a choice, but if that's the case a little development along that line of thinking would have gone a long way....


message 16: by Kat (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kat sorry, i don't completely agree with your let down...

i understand the inconsistancy of the slight explanation of "Callie into Cal," who's lofty explanation would have been worthy in comparison to eugenides' verbosity with the rest; but, perhaps it was intentional???

the lack of words to me was appropriate dipiction of Callie's age. the emotional, scared, confused, and isolated feelings drove her impetuous act. i don't think callie was thinking. or if she was, it was perseveration on the report rather than a examanation of her past or a critical analysis of her chosen action. i think there weren't words. and his sparse narration was appropriate to convey the rashness of it all.

imagine a dissertation on his 14-year-old decision?

either a. "i'm confused, i'm scared, i don't want to be cut up, the report, the report, etc." spanning 7 pages (for a decision which hours) AND with grandiloquence unsuitable for his age.

or b. a well thought out decision laid out at that moment. wouldn't this be illogical for the author to put rational in an irrational character?

i would say if the book's intention was to make a stance, or relay the typical intersex journey, than yes, by all means be descriptive in every important aspect of that journey so reader is aware, ESPECIALLY involving the Choice. But, as Cal, as he even proclaims, still isn't the front running, outspoken voice for rights of intersex individuals, i don't think he went this route. i think he wanted to highlight his family. their story. the way it all comes together.

cal perhaps isn't the poster child for his well thought-out decision or profound explanation. but, that's what i love about the book. it's so human, real. what happens to him after his impetuous decision, in which euginides does goes into detail, speaks of her journey and struggle.

cal accomplishes his goal. he told his story the way he wanted: through three generations. as "truthful" and unglamorous as it is.

and, subsequently, IF his agenda was to shed light on intersex issues, the book definitely accomplishes this. as a best seller, anyone who wasn't introduced to anything intersex, now is. anyone who wouldn't just pick up an empirical study on intersex, or non-fiction, probably would pick up this book for it's holistic, enjoyable story.

you may disagree with valid literary points... but, call me an optimist: i probably still wouldn't be let down. 5 stars for me! =)


Rachel I thought that was a flaw of the book as well. It seemed like Cal identified with and preferred women and just was sort of disgusted by men in general. So the sudden decision to identify as a male didn't ring true. There was none of the "feeling trapped as a man inside a woman's body," that you so often hear transexuals talk about. I would have found the story more believable if Cal had continued identifying as a woman, even if she didn't choose the operation.


Ashley I agree wholeheartedly with your major criticism. When one chooses to begin a novel with a phrase like, "I was born twice...", readers will logically expect that change to be a significant aspect of the plot. I might understand why teenaged Calliope overreacted to Dr. Luce's report and decided to try living as a male (though that could be criticized, as well), but I didn't understand why the narrator, adult Cal, chose to continue living that way. As others have said, it sounded like he identified more as a female, and, as he was a seemingly perceptive and introspective character, it is disappointing that we didn't get to know his thoughts on the transition or his choice.


Melissa I disagree with all of you. Calliope was miserable as a female. She was always uncomfortable and hiding her true self because she was unaware of her condition and who she really was. By reading her file she was able to understand all the things she had been feeling as well as the way she looked. Of course she was going to have many female emotions she is a hermaphrodite!!! Of course the change from Calliope to Cal would be difficult, she was raised as a female!!! But deep down inside she knew something was wrong and after reading the file she understood as only a fourteen year old can. Sometimes the ability to read between the lines is what makes for a more intelligent reader I guess. Although in this case I think it was quite obvious.


Marielle I think it's meant to show exactly that; that Cal is NOT confused. The whole book is about how gender isn't cultural. Cal is perpetually confused when he thinks he is female- confused and unhappy- but when he realizes that he is male, there's no question. The confusion is lifted. Having this form of hermaphroditism is nothing like being gender queer, or transsexual, or even like different forms of hermaphroditism. Cal is just like any other guy would be who was raised as girl; unambiguously male and relieved to claim that, the minute he finds out that he is XY.


Melissa I agree with Marielle. Like Cal says as an adult to his girlfriend when she asks him if he's gay...he says that he's always liked girls, even when he WAS a girl. Finding out he was XY was obviously traumatic, but I think it was like an "aha" moment, like "oh, that explains it."


Elaine While I was thinking along the same lines as Argent when reading the last portion of the book, as a lesbian, wondering why Cal didn't consider that he could be a girl who likes girls, I more agree with Melissa and Marielle because there were parts where Cal, telling his story of growing up as a girl, mentioned discrepancies in how "she" felt toward people when she was younger - it wasn't just that Callie was attracted to girls, it was that Callie felt empathetic to what and how other men and boys around her thought. Callie "identified" with other men in many ways, only didn't have the life experience to understand that as a possibility - so when she found out that, as she put it to her brother, "They were going to cut me up," she of course didn't want that to happen. She wanted to be allowed to be who she really was - a he.


Molly Taylor Melissa wrote: "I disagree with all of you. Calliope was miserable as a female. She was always uncomfortable and hiding her true self because she was unaware of her condition and who she really was. By reading h..."

I agree! I thought the "choice" was obvious. Cal had felt completely confused and uncomfortable as a girl, so when Cal read the file and realized there was actually a reason for what he/she had been feeling suddenly things became clear. That's what prompted the running away, that Cal didn't want to be forced to be a girl permanently. I also disagree with whoever said that Cal knew his grandmother was a lesbian. I don't think Cal even knew what a lesbian was at the age of 14, all Cal seemed to know was that he was attracted to girls. Sexuality seemed like it was a topic that was not discussed in Cal's household from how Cal not having a period was handled and even how little going to see a specialist was handled. Cal wasn't even aware of what the problem was! So I doubt very much that he knew his grandmother was a lesbian.


Zack This whole book is an exploration into nature vs. nurture. Eugenides seems to favor the former, though I think in real life it would probably been the latter. But this point becomes clear when you notice the amount of emphasis Eugenides puts on the "male" characteristics of Cal, whatever that means, and implies for the entire book that he is a male who has been treated like a female, but never really was a female.


Sara Rachel wrote: "I thought that was a flaw of the book as well. It seemed like Cal identified with and preferred women and just was sort of disgusted by men in general. So the sudden decision to identify as a m..."

I don't think Cal ever seemed to identify more with women, to me it was the opposite. During the race riots he specifically denotes his characteristically male need to protect the family so Callie ventures outside amid gunfire to find their father and bring him home. As a young child and definetly in his early teen years, it was obvious Cal felt out of place and uncomfortable. Also, trying to compare how a typical transexual feels with a person who has gender ambiguity is overly simplitistic and in my opinion insulting. They're not the same thing at all and therefore not comparable.


I found plenty of explanation in the chapters leading up to Cal's decision to live as a male. The whole time, Callie has just been doing was she thought everyone wanted, saying what they wanted to hear, and doing her best to act like a "normal" girl. It's no wonder he makes this huge shift after finally finding out the truth. The doctors and his family want to "cut him up" to make him what they had hoped he would be. If he was ever going to claim his life as his own, it was at the moment, not months and years down the road.


Kati i didn't even really think about it that way but you're completely right, the "transition" wasn't really a transition at all, it was just a split-second decision with not much explanation or detail behind it. generally the process involves a little more than just saying "well i found out i was male so i went out and bought a suit and cut my hair and that was that." even though calliope had felt noticeably uncomfortable in her gender identity the whole book, that entire part still felt really skipped over and unrealistic to me.


George I think you are missing the point here Kati. As a teenager Cal realises that she is attracted to girls. What more of a clue to you need as to why she opted to be a man? Her mother on the other hand always wanted a girl and refuses to see that her little girl should had actually been a boy. On top of this Desdemona feels that what happened to Cal is panishment for her own sins. -


Gigglepie I'm kind of confused about why so many seem to think that that playing male or female would have to be some kind of huge decision. For a lot of people it really doesn't matter. Physically, Cal had the option as living as an outwardly normal man or as an extremely awkward and unconvincing looking female. As I was reading, it just seemed that living as a male was the path of least resistance and the best opportunity at a normal life, regardless of sex.


Longfellow My reading experience was on the side of those who were not surprised at Calliope's decision to live as a male. There seems to be plenty of preparatory scenes along the way. But I'm more interested in some speculations on the answer to this question: why is Calliope's brother's name Chapter Eleven? Any ideas?


Gigglepie I wondered about that too. I was reading along and out of nowhere, who is this? It's Chapter Eleven. Why?

The author is really fond of adding in "cute" things like this. Here's what he had to say about Chapter Eleven to Stacey, a woman who asked him the same question:

"Cal, the narrator of Middlesex, never refers to Chapter Eleven by his given name. Neither does anyone in the book. The nickname, "Chapter Eleven," is bestowed on Cal's brother by Cal himself, retroactively, in the act of writing the book. If you can find a place where Chapter Eleven is called something else, Stacy, let me know, but I'd be very surprised. His "given name" is something I didn't give the reader.

As for the meaning of the nickname, that's another story. The character of Chapter Eleven is introduced in the first pages of the novel but it's not until page 512 that Cal provides clues as to what this name means. There's a long passage where Cal sketches what will happen to his brother in the years to come, but, unlike just about every other Stephanides family story, Cal elects not to go into it. Still, the hints are there and include the maxing out of credit cards, etc., all of which point to a situation that might involve something known in U.S. tax law as Chapter 11.

By the way, Stacy, your question is the question I get asked most often by readers of the book. The name "Chapter Eleven" really confuses people in Europe and Asia, as you might imagine. (No one files for Chapter 11 in Japan.) In some cases, Germany, for instance, where I know the language, I've worked with my translators to come up with an alternative. In the German edition of Middlesex, Chapter Eleven is called Der Pleitegeier. This refers to the circling buzzard that presages doom, usually of the financial variety.

Read more: http://www.oprah.com/oprahsbookclub/M..."

So, there you go. It's confusing because the author never bothers to fully explain it.


Longfellow Gigglepie wrote: "I wondered about that too. I was reading along and out of nowhere, who is this? It's Chapter Eleven. Why?

The author is really fond of adding in "cute" things like this. Here's what he had to say..."


Thanks! Great source find to answer this question, and yes, "cute" is the right word for it. I was expecting something with a bit more symbolic depth. I'll pass the answer on to interested parties.


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