Middlesex is a novel written by Jeffrey Eugenides that explores the controversial issues associated with gender and sexual identity. One way in which the author does this is by introducing the influences of nature and nurture and demonstrating how each has an effect on the sexual identities of individuals.
The novel tells the story of a protagonist known as both Cal and Calliope (masculine and feminine identities), who was born with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, a recessive condition that caused him to be intersex. Cal’s family were initially unaware of his condition and so he was raised as a girl, however we see him begin to struggle with this identity as he grows up and experiences his first sexual encounters with both male and female partners. Cal’s condition is later discovered during surgery as a result of being injured by a tractor; facing sex reassignment surgery Cal runs away and assumes a full time male identity, working as Hermaphrodites in a burlesque show in San Francisco. He later returns to his family home for his father’s funeral, at which point his grandmother recognizes his condition and confesses that it is a product of incest, as her husband is also her brother.
I enjoyed Eugenides’ use of the themes of nature and nurture in the novel because it emphasized not only the internal and biological struggle acing intersex individuals, but also the additional pressures imposed by society because of the stigma surrounding such issues as a result of the polarization of male and female gender identities in society. Eugenides’ use of imagery from Greek mythology is also a clever addition to the novel not only in terms of historical context but also because of the subtle parallels found between certain myths and the actuality of Cal’s condition; for example, the minotaur is half-man, half-beast and the Chimera is a monster composed of various animal parts.
I also enjoyed Eugenides’ use of the family tree which allowed the novel to span nearly a century, tracing the Stephanides family three generations. This style enabled a build up of intrigue as to when the recessive gene was going to come forth and affect one of the family members, therefore each birth and monumental family event in the novel is tainted by the inevitable threat of this biological condition. As a result the reader is urged to read on.
Overall this novel is very well written and explores a sensitive and controversial topic in a manner that is both appropriate and avoids being too heavily based on the science of the matter. However for me personally, the novel was not as engaging and entertaining as I had hoped and therefore I would rate it 2.5/5 and would suggest a more upbeat subject mater for a leisurely read.