arGender stereotypes are a funny thing (and by funny, we mean borderline infuriating). Who decided that girls should wear pink and boys should play with trucks? What if a boy wants to play with pink? Or a girl wants to wear a truck? Okay, that's not a good analogy, but you get what we mean. When you live in a world full of gender stereotypes, what can you do to defy and redefine them?
This is the dilemma facing Cal Stephanides in Jeffrey Eugenides's epic novel Middlesex. Cal is born genetically male, but is raised female because his doctor thought he was a girl. (For all you med students out there who want to get technical, that means the doctor thought his pee-pee was a hoo-hoo.)
Middlesex, being the modern-day Greek comic-tragedy that it is, isn't just about Cal though. It's about Cal's parents and grandparents, and all the events of the world—war, riots, strife, poverty and prosperity—that made them who they are.
Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot, won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2003. Middlesex was on tons of "Best Books of 2002" lists, and the finalist for more awards than we can count. And, you know, Oprah. (Need we say more?) Eugenides might have even won Miss America that year, it's hard to recall.
The book wasn't without controversy, though. (Eugenides, like Eminem, is from Detroit, and like Eminem, we need a little controversy.) Some critics complained about the fact that Cal's intersex genitals are the result of incest, and that Cal is sometimes compared to mythological monsters. We'd like to give you a heads up that the pronoun we use to refer to Cal's character shifts according to the gender identity he inhabits at the time he is referring to. Without taking sides, we'd also like to say that we think the Minotaur is pretty bad-ass.
Middlesex isn't just steeped with Greek mythology and ambiguous genitalia (as though you need more than that in life), but it also spans generations: starting in Greece, crossing the Atlantic, settling in Detroit at the beginning of the age of Ford Motors, following along until Detroit is burned during race riots, and ending in San Francisco at the height of the sexual revolution. This book is a freaking five hundred page time machine.
Whether you're male or female or identify in a different way, a native born American or an immigrant, religious or pagan, gay or straight, happy or sad, Middlesex has a little bit of something for everyone. Get ready for a wild ride through time.
How did you get to where you are right now? This is something Cal Stephanides thinks about a lot in Middlesex, but how about you? Short answer: You rolled out of bed on the morning an essay is due and, needing a topic to write about, crawled to your computer in your bunny pjs, played a round of Candy Crush, then ended up on this website. Welcome—we're glad you're here.
The long answer: Before you were looking at this website, you were born. (You look great. It wasn't that long ago, was it?) So, face it, your parents did it. Yes—it. What brought them to that moment? We know you don't want to think about it, but you wouldn't be here if they hadn't. What made them? And what made your grandparents? Yes, even your grandparents were doing it. And back, and back, and back until humans crawled out of the primordial ooze or were made from dirt or whatever happened.
The shortest answer: Everything has come together to put you where you are right now. What are you going to do about it?
Bloomsburying the Lead
Jeffrey Eugenides' website has all you need to know about his first two novels, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. You'll have to look elsewhere for the scoop on his third, The Marriage Plot.
Try Before You Buy
If you think Middlesex sounds cool, but you're not yet ready to take the plunge, you can sample the text and the audiobook here.
E Meets O
Part of the privilege of being an Oprah's Book Club pick is getting to sit down with the big O herself. Eugenides got to do this in 2007.
It's 3A.M., We Must Lonely
3A.M. Magazine interviews Eugenides (hopefully at a more reasonable hour) about Greek symbolism and literary voice.
Serious + Literary = Snorefest… Right? Wrong!
In this video, Eugenides talks about his novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. With titles like that, he can't be boring, despite being described as serious and literary. Plus, he's from Detroit. Like Eminem.
See You First Tuesday
If you read Middlesex and thought it needed more amateur acting and cheap costumes, this video is for you. (Don't worry, there's some good literary analysis here too. Plus: British accents.)
A Breath of Fresh Air
Eugenides spouted some fresh air of his own on Fresh Air with Terry Gross in 2002.
From Silkworms to Bookworm
Michael Silverblatt chatted with Eugenides on the air about Middlesex in 2003.
Do the Worm
Hankering for some hot silkworm action? Here's a good diagram of what a bombyx mori looks like at all stages of life. Who knew you'd get a bio lesson from Middlesex too?
Desdemona and Lefty might not have bunked with Zeus and Hera, but they lived on the actual Mount Olympus. The view is pretty good up there.