Thursday, October 7, 2010

Middlesex is the blending of family saga and personal discovery

Jeffrey Eugenides

I pushed this book aside for many years because I wasn't sure I wanted to read a book about a hermaphrodite; I don't know that much about hermaphrodite-ism (is that a word?) and have to honestly admit that I was being judgmental and discriminatory in my original view. Huh, funny how ignorance of a topic brings those qualities out. After so many glowing reviews, I finally decided it was time to read it. Even though this book was a work of fiction, it was extremely eye-opening for me.

The story of Caliope - who changes gender identity to Cal in his teenage years - is a first person narrative that starts with his grandparents in Greece, chronicles their life together as they move to America, switches to narrative about Cal's parents, and finally about Cal himself. More accurately, it chronicles the journey of two recessive versions of 5-Alpha-Reductase on chromosome 5 through three generations of Cal's family until they, unfortunately, come together in his body, making him a male pseudo-hermaphrodite.

What I reflected on most while reading this book was that it could have been a story about anyone, hermaphrodite or not. At it's core, it was a story about an individual who was trying to survive his teenage years, struggling with gender identity and sexuality, and just trying to blend in with the crowd - all themes with which each of us can identify. A theme that was woven throughout the book was that a person's biological sex does not necessarily determine their gender identity, which is an idea I have often discussed, but never thought of in this context.

I also had no idea the many types of hermaphrodite-ism! It is not simply the case of having a vagina and a penis simultaneously, but is a complex (im)balance of hormones and the timing of when those hormones are (or are not) triggered in your body. Which quickly led me to the final lesson I learned from this book: do not simply google "hermaphrodite" in hopes of getting scientific information on the subject. Or, if you do, you should definitely not do it from work! I got a plethora of information, most of it unwanted, that led me to close my browser in record-breaking time! I them carefully navigated to a medicinal science website before conduction that search again!

Overall, a great book and amazing story that gets that extra bump up to 5 stars by changing my view of the world and making me more open to people who are different than me. Ah, I love books that have that effect.

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