Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jeffrey Eugenides published in 2002. Despite slow initial sales, the book became a bestseller. Its characters and events are loosely based on the author's life and his observations of his Greek heritage. Eugenides decided to write Middlesex after he read the memoir Herculine Barbin and was unsatisfied with its discussion of a hermaphrodite's anatomy and emotions.
The narrator and protagonist, Cal Stephanides (initially called "Callie"), is an intersexed man of Greek descent with a condition known as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, which causes him to have certain feminine traits. The first half of the novel is about Cal's Greek family, and depicts Cal's grandparents migrating from a small village in Asia Minor to the United States in 1922-followed by their assimilation into the American society. The latter half of the novel, which is set in the late 20th century, focuses on Cal's experiences while living in Detroit, Michigan.
Primarily a Bildungsroman and family saga, the novel portrays the journey of a mutated gene through three generations of a Greek family, causing momentous changes in the protagonist's life. According to scholars, the novel's main themes are nature vs. nurture, rebirth, and the differing experiences of polar opposites-such as those found between men and women. The novel contains many Greek mythical allusions such as the Minotaur, a half-man and half-bull creature, and the Chimera, a monster composed of various animal parts.
Entertainment Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Book Review considered Middlesex one of the best books of 2002, and some scholars believed the novel should be considered for the title of Great American Novel. Generally, reviewers felt that the novel succeeded in portraying its Greek immigrant drama, and were also impressed with Eugenides' depiction of his hometown of Detroit-praising him for his social commentary. In 2007, the book was featured in Oprah's Book Club. In July 2009, HBO announced that Middlesex would be adapted into a one-hour drama series, with the script written by Donald Margulies.
The novel begins with the narrator, aged 41, recounting how the recessive gene, 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, caused him to be born with female characteristics. The name he is given at birth is Calliope or "Callie"-a feminine name. After learning about the syndrome as an adolescent, Calliope changes his name to the masculine name, Cal.
The first half of the story, Middlesex, is based on events that occurred prior to Callie's birth. At one point, the narrator briefly explains how his grandmother, Desdemona, predicted Cal would be a boy, while his parents made preparations for the birth of a girl. Throughout the novel, the narration periodically returns to the frame story of present-day Cal-a bearded man who is sexually attracted to women-foreshadowing the personal revelations of Callie.
The story continues with a flashback to a small village in Asia Minor, with the accounts of the protagonist's Greek paternal grandparents. Cal's grandfather, Eleutherios "Lefty" Stephanides, and grandmother, Desdemona Stephanides, are orphaned siblings who share a close bond, which later develops into a romantic relationship-despite their initial misgivings. Set in the aftermath of the 1922 Greco-Turkish War and amid graphic scenes of the Great Fire of Smyrna, the siblings are forced to seek refuge by emigrating to America. On the eve of their departure, Desdemona agrees to marry her brother. Despite legal and social prohibitions against marriage between siblings, their marriage is allowed since no one in America knows they are brother and sister. They reach the United States and settle in Detroit, Michigan, in the home of their cousin, Sourmelina "Lina" Zizmo, a closeted lesbian, and her husband, Jimmy, a bootlegger. Lefty goes into Jimmy's smuggling business, while Desdemona gives birth to a son, Milton, and Lina gives birth to a daughter, Theodora or "Tessie". Desdemona is made aware of the potential for disease in children through consanguinity and becomes anxious about her pregnancy and the morality of her sexual relationship with Lefty. As his marriage declines, Lefty decides to open a bar and gambling room, calling it the Zebra Room.
Eventually, Lefty and Desdemona's son, Milton, marries Lina's daughter, Tessie. Milton and Tessie, who are second cousins, have two children, Chapter Eleven and Callie. Chapter Eleven (a reference to the fact that he eventually drives the family business into bankruptcy) is a biologically "normal" boy, while Callie is intersexed; however, the family does not know this for many years, so Callie is raised as a girl. After the 1967 Detroit riot, the family moves to a house on the street, Middlesex-located in the Grosse Pointe neighborhood. The novel's title is a double entendre, in that it describes both the name of the street on which Callie lived in the 1970s and his intersexual identity.
At 14 years old, Callie falls in love with her female best friend, who is referred to in the novel as the "Obscure Object" (a reference to the 1977 film That Obscure Object of Desire directed by Luis Buñuel). Around this time, Callie has her first sexual experiences with both genders, the Obscure Object and the Obscure Object's brother. After Callie is injured by a tractor, a doctor discovers that Callie is intersexed, and she is taken to a clinic in New York where she undergoes a series of tests and examinations. Faced with the prospect of sex reassignment surgery, Callie runs away and assumes a male identity as Cal. Cal hitchhikes cross-country until he reaches San Francisco, where he becomes a part of a burlesque show.
The club where Cal works is raided by police, and he is returned to Chapter Eleven's custody. Desdemona sees Cal as male for the first time, and she confesses to Cal that her husband, Lefty, was also her brother. After learning that Milton had just been killed in a car accident, Cal stands in the doorway of his family's Middlesex home (a male-only Greek tradition thought to keep spirits of the dead out of the family home) as Milton's funeral takes place. Later, as an adult, Cal becomes a diplomat and is stationed in Berlin, where he meets Julie Kikuchi, a Japanese-American woman with whom he tentatively starts a relationship.