Last Monday my book club met to discuss Jeffrey Eugenides’ book Middlesex. If you read my earlier post, then you know that I loved this book and I was so excited to talk about it.
Looking over my notes, it seems we talked a lot about the characters in the book that affected Cal’s life. The first I’ll address here was Dr. Luce, the gender specialist who Callie saw in New York. He seems to be slightly fantastical of a character in his description, but many of the women in my group agreed that he fit very well with the sexual revolution that went on in the 1970s and the emerging field of gender studies seemed to fit in well with the times. One of the questions we had about Luce was Callie’s relationship with him. Was she lying to him because it was easier, she thought it would make her fit in, or because she didn’t trust him? The narration Cal gives during this time made me think that Callie thought it would be easier to lie than it would be to admit she had feelings for women.
Another character that we all liked was Zora, Cal’s roommate in San Francisco. We all thought when we read that Cal had finally called Bob Presto that bad things were going to happen and to an extent, they did. However, what Cal learned from Zora was some of the best advice he got and it really helped him figure out who he was and who he could identify as.
We were all glad to find out at the end of the book why Eugenides continued to refer to Cal’s brother as Chapter 11. I knew as soon as he said Chapter 11 had taken over the family hot dog business that he was going to run it into the ground and file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was a sort of teaser that Eugenides held that information back until the very end.
One of the names that stuck was the Obscure Object, the girl that Callie falls in love with at the age of 14. The story behind the name is almost more interesting than the character herself. Eugenides and his friend at Brown had a crush on the same girl and would refer to her as the Obscure Object. You can read the full story in this article.
Being that we’re based in the Detroit area, the setting of the book was something we wanted to discuss as well. We were glad that Eugenides chose to write about an area he obviously knows so well. (For the record, the audiobook version I listened to pronounced two words wrong that made it very obvious the reader was not from the Detroit area. You just had to ask someone!) Our group read another book a while back that had to do with the Detroit riots as well. Grand River and Joy focused on a Jewish business owner whose story was located downtown during the riots, much like Milton’s dinner. In contrast to the characters in that other book, Milton was very lucky to have the insurance policies he did. Even with one of them not paying out, he still made a killing from the collections after the riot which allowed him to support his family. Not all business owners were so lucky. Someone also pointed out that they knew were Halibut Street is and it’s no longer in a good area. That shows how much Detroit has changed in recent years.
Relating to the Detroit setting, we were intrigued by the girls school in Grosse Point. For the record, we were not aware of any such school, though if it is based on a real school, we decided it was likely the Grosse Point Academy, which is a co-ed school. What we liked was the hierarchy of girls that were created with the charm bracelet girls at the top. The imagery of that brought back memories of Claire’s Boutique bracelets that all the popular girls had in my school. One of our members attended a local all girls school and she said that being in an environment with all women can make for a very sexually charged experience. All the girls are talking about boys, thinking about boys, and doing things with boys. It’s no wonder that Cal’s own sexuality was on her mind all the time. This would also push her to think about men sexuality and pressure her to suppress her feelings for women. We loved the irony that the two founders were lesbian lovers.
One member posed the question to us, “What, if anything, was unusual about the way Callie discovered her sexuality? When we thought about it, the answer was really that nothing was unusual about it. Some women grow up quickly and can reach their full height at a young age. Callie’s strange height wouldn’t be unheard of. I remember a girl in my class who reached her full height at age ten and then never grew again. She felt awkward in her height bur a number of years until the rest of us caught up. Callie probably suspected that something similar was happening to her. Her desire to explore sex is not unusual either and I think if we all reflect on our early teen years, we can admit to ourselves that we thought about it. Her curiosity is not a male or female characteristic, the Obscure Object shares it with her as does Jerome.
So what is it that finally makes Callie decide to be Cal and make the change from a young girl to a young man? My argument was that he didn’t have a choice. In his mind, he felt like a man and his love for the Obscure Object was not a homosexual love, but a heterosexual love. It reminded me of an interview I saw years ago. It’s the story of Alyn Libman and I recalled the quote on this story where Libman says, “the label ‘lesbian’ felt comfortable, but it didn’t feel quite right.” I suspect Cal felt the same way about his attraction to the Obscure Object.
This reminded us as well of the story of Caster Semenya, a track star from South Africa who was subjected to gender testing following a win in the 2009 World Championships. She was found to have internal testicles, similar to the condition Dr. Luce diagnosed Cal with. Caster feels very strongly feminine and has continued to compete as a woman. It’s an interesting case to mention here due to Caster’s decision and its contact to Cal’s. As a side note, one of our members kept thinking a member of Cal’s family was going to end up having the same condition and they would discover it together. Caster would have made a great addition to the story.
Another big point we talked about was Eugenides decision to use the term hermaphrodite when referring to Cal’s condition and not intersex, a term that is referenced in the book as being more widely used. We thought that it was a more appropriate term to use because the story of Hermaphroditus tells of one man and one woman, a nod to the time Cal spent as a man and as a woman. While someone like Caster Semenya has the characteristics of both and could be call a hermaphrodite, she has only lived as a woman while Cal has seen both sides. It’s also a nod to his Greek heritage. Eugenides discusses this exact issue in an interview on Oprah.com.
Before Cal is born, he uses third person narration to describe the people and events that happened. Our group questioned if these telling were reliable. Because our narrator wasn’t there, who is he getting this information from? One reader suggested that some of the facts had been lost in translation. Desdemona didn’t speak English well and Lefty was always working in vein on translations that never seemed to end. Milton never learned Greek and soon Lefty stopped talking. Somewhere along the way, the stories could have been mixed up.
When I saw the title of this book, it made me think of some old English countryside. In truth, Eugenides has admitted it’s a throwback to Middlemarch. But even more than that, it’s the street he grew up on in Grosse Point (how cool is that?). At the same time it was so appropriate because it brings about Cal’s dilemma. He’s caught between two genders, stuck in the middle. In the house, everything was on display and nothing could be hidden behind all the glass walls. In much the same way, Cal couldn’t hide who he was from anyone.
There was comedy and tragedy in this book and, like Milton’s cuff links, both sparkled in the sun.
Writer’s Takeaways: There were two points we made about Eugenides’ stylistic choices. The first was his use of a combination of first and third person. I listened to an interview with him where he talked about how he tried to write in first person and he tried to write in third person, but first person left out the history of the family and third person required him to impersonalize Cal’s journey. Third person would require a pronoun and Eugenides didn’t want to make the he/she switch with Cal’s character. The point of the book is that he’s a person no matter what his gender.
The second thing I admired was his ability to mix fanaticism into the narration without seeming silly or childish. The scene that struck us all as fantastical was the one toward the end where Milton flies over the city in his car right before his death. He explores his old haunts in Detroit in an out of body experience that seemed to fit perfectly into the context of the story.
We all enjoyed it and those who didn’t finish plan to. Highly recommended.