Cal Stephanides was born in 1960 in Detroit to an Anatolian Greek family and raised as a girl--Calliope. It wasn't until Cal was 14 that the truth (about Stephanides intermarriage, gene mutation, and recessive intersexuality--that is, hermaphroditism) came out. As an adult, Cal lives as a man, albeit an occasionally uncomfortable one. Using the excuse of tracking down the origins of the gene mutation, Cal tells the Stephanides family history from 1922 in the tiny village on Mt. Olympus in Turkey through 2002.
The story begins with Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides, the brother and sister orphans who have to evacuate Turkey when the war between Greeks and Turks reaches its head. The narrative, which is very absorbing, unfolds via the burning of Smyrna and the massacre of Greeks and Armenians, the immigration experience, the history of Detroit, the origins of the Nation of Islam, and the race riots of 1967, all en route to describing the physical manifestations and medical truths and uncertainties about hermaphroditism, and what it's like to grow up in a third and misunderstood gender. All of these topics were fascinating to read about, things I'd heard of before but never really understood the way I do now, and Eugenides's narrative is jam-packed with informative history. For the argument that fiction can be at least as valuable to read as nonfiction, I can't think of a better example. You'll come out of this book highly entertained and an accidentally smarter person. I learned the word "intersexual," about which I'm very glad.
The Homeric effort of the book is complemented by some nice little jokes for classics buffs out there (the Greek chiropractor friend drives over his wine-dark Buick every Sunday, for example), and the immigration experience retelling will certainly resonate with any fellow Mediterraneans out there. Despite some unevenness in the prose (vacillating between past and present, for example, bugged me, as did the probably intentional omissions of long stretches of time) and a number of loose ends simply left hanging, the book is a wonderful read. Jeffrey Eugenides casts of some lovely one-liners. For example, when Cal's mother gets engaged to a young Orthodox priest:
"Why did my mother do it? She could never explain. The reasons people marry the people they do are not always evident to those involved" (181).
At other moments, he knocks you to your knees. For example, when Callie, 14, looks up a chain of definitions in the New York Public Library dictionary after seeing her "condition" described on a medical report. The chain (which I've collapsed here) runs like this:
hypospadias [definition] See synonyms at EUNUCH
eunuch [definition] See synonyms at HERMAPHRODITE
hermaphrodite [definition] See synonyms at MONSTER (430)
Middlesex won the 2002 Pulitzer, and I gotta say, I think it deserved it.