By the time anyone reaches college, it’s fairly safe to assume they have read a good handful of coming-of-age books.
It’s also fairly safe to assume that most of those books follow the same, predictable coming-of-age plot that you can find outlined on any high school English handout.
The Pulitzer Prize winning “Middlesex,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, is labeled as one of these coming-of-age stories. But it is one of the most unusual and controversial you may ever run across.
Told from the viewpoint of Cal Stephanides, formerly Calliope Stephanides, it features him as the product of generations of intentional inbreeding. He is born a hermaphrodite and reared as a girl, growing up to become a gender-confused fascinating study in nature versus nurture.
“Can you see me? All of me? Probably not. No one ever really has,” Cal said of his unusual situation.
While Cal’s own story is fascinating enough for a whole book in and of itself, it is his theory that he is the creation of many years of inbreeding. Thus, the book skips easily between past and present, documenting not only his remarkable journey but relating it to that of his grandparents and parents.
Or, you could say, relating it to his great aunt and uncle and second cousins once removed. After all, those terms apply to the same people.
Eugenides weaves a convoluted story of unusual occurrences in so commonplace a setting that no one, including those around his characters, suspects anything amiss.
It is written in loving detail, with nothing left out. Every possible aspect that can be conveyed to readers is, resulting in a novel rich with appeals to the five senses. You can see Cal’s Roman nose, smell the chlorinated tank in which he swam during his stint at a freak show.
You can hear his father’s seductive clarinet music, taste the extravagant meals his grandmother used to make and feel the red hair of Cal’s first lover.
However, the appeal in this book lies in the beliefs of Cal himself. He acknowledges science but believes that no matter what chromosomes may be mutated in him, previous decisions, as well as his life decisions, intermingled with fate to create what he becomes.
His point seems to be that every single person is a result of innumerable years of decisions that influence the ultimate fate of the next generation, who in turn make decisions that affect their own lives, and those of their descendants, resulting in a vicious cycle.
“In the end, it wasn’t up to me. The big things never are,” Cal admits.
Book reviewer Savannah King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.