History: It was published in 2002 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003.
Plot: The novel begins with the narrator, aged 41, deciding to tell the story of his recessive gene that caused him to be born Calliope and later to become Cal. The narration periodically returns to the frame story of present-day Cal, who is bearded, male and interested in women, foreshadowing the personal revelations of Callie. The narration briefly explains how Desdemona, Cal's grandmother, predicted her grandchild to be male while Calliope's parents had already made schemes they believed would result in a daughter. The narration in the story periodically jumps from Cal as an omniscient narrator to present day Cal, who identifies as male and references his XY chromosomal status, and who dates women. This foreshadows the revelations of young, female-identified Callie.
The story starts again further back in time, in a small village in Asia Minor, with the story of the protagonist's Greek paternal grandparents. In the aftermath of the 1922 war between Greece and Turkey, and amid graphic scenes of the Great Fire of Smyrna, the orphaned siblings Eleutherios ("Lefty") Stephanides and his sister Desdemona seek refuge by emigrating to America. With great ambivalance, but with few other options amidst tremendous upheaval and trauma, Desdemona agrees to marry her brother, who has been increasingly regarding her not as a sister, but as a potential lover. Fleeing incognito by ship, they are free to marry without risking the legal and social prohibitions of marriage between siblings. They reach the United States, and settle in Detroit, Michigan with their cousin and her husband, Jimmy. Lefty soon goes into an illegal business run by Jimmy. After both Lina and Desdemona become pregnant on the same night after seeing a sexual play, Jimmy soon becomes suspicious. Increasingly paranoid, Jimmy starts to question Lefty on the pregnancy of Lina while driving across thin ice to Canada. Realizing that both men could die if the car plunged into the ice, Lefty jumps out the car leaving Jimmy driving. After a while, the car is heard plunging into the ice with Jimmy still inside. In time, Desdemona gives birth to a son while Lina gives birth to a daughter, Theodora. Lefty decides to open a bar and gambling room, calling it the Zebra Room. Years later, Lefty and Desdemona's son, Milton, marries Lina's daughter, Tessie. Milton and Tessie, who are second cousins, have two children, one is a normal boy but Callie is intersexed, although the family doesn't know about it for many years, and is raised as a girl. At fourteen, Callie falls in love with her female best friend (referred to in the novel as "The Obscure Object") and has her first sexual experiences with both sexes. After an accident, 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 takes the male identity of Cal. Cal hitchhikes cross-country, finally arriving in San Francisco, where he becomes an attraction in a burlesque show.
Milton, back in Detroit, repeatedly receives phone calls from an anonymous man saying he knows where Callie is, and will release her for a ransom of $25,000. Milton questions the man on family details, to which the man replies correctly. Milton drops the money but changes his mind, figuring that something isn't right, and finds it's his priest brother-in-law and his wife's former fiancé, Father Mike. This leads to a car chase to the Canadian border, where Milton is killed in a pile-up, and Father Mike is arrested. Cal is returned in time for Milton's funeral back in Grosse Pointe. Desdemona sees Cal as male for the first time, and the book ends when Desdemona confesses to Cal that Lefty was her brother. Cal stands in the doorway to the family's Middlesex home (a Greek tradition touted to keep spirits of the dead out of the family home) while Milton's funeral takes place.
Review: The story is told through the eyes of Cal, who is obviously therefore retelling a fascinating family history second or third hand. This works so very very well because Eugenides takes utmost care to flesh out Cal in intricate 3-D detail while only building up other characters as much as Cal himself would have been able to. Desdemona, the matriarchal grandmother with whom the story opens and, quite literally, finds its genesis, always seems a sketchy figure from the word go. Lefty, her husband, the same. Other characters, nearer the plot (her brother, the Object, etc) are much more vividly portrayed because Eugenides takes care to maintain Cal’s perspective at all times.
Opening Line: I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Closing Line: I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next.
Quotes: “sex is biological. Gender is cultural”
“[men] cover you like a sarcophagus lid. And call it love”
“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. “
Re churches: “They let you in for free. Then you’ve got to pay for the rest of your life.”