Middlesex Study Guide

Middlesex, published in 2002 by Jeffrey Eugenides, is the story of Cal Stephanides, an intersex person born in 1960 to a Greek-American family living in a wealthy suburb of Detroit. Thanks to a recessive gene passed down by his inbred family, Cal suffers from 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, a condition that suppresses masculine hormones in the womb, but not at puberty. The novel moves beyond Cal's life, however, and tells the story of the whole family: from the flight of Cal's grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, from the Turkish Army to America; to the courtship of his parents, Milton and Tessie, during World War II; to Cal's own childhood growing up in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s. Middlesex anchors itself to many specific historic ideas and events, including the Balkan Wars, the Nation of Islam, and the Detroit race riots. The Stephanides' journey mirrors that of the American Dream, of immigrants who move to America for freedom and opportunity. Along the way, they encounter racism, difficulty, poverty, wealth, rebellion, and tragedy.

The novel engages with themes of rebirth, ethnic identity, gender, hybridity, monstrosity, free will and destiny, and classical Greek motifs, while experimenting with narrative structure and narrative voice. Cal and Eugenides emphasize the importance of circular structures for narrative truth, often going back in time in order to understand the present and tracing echoes of events through their re-occurrences. Nothing in Middlesex is ever straightforward or black and white, and Cal's depiction of these themes avoids clear-cut solutions.

Several of Jeffrey Eugenides' works are set in Detroit, Michigan, his hometown. Middlesex in particular has many autobiographical elements, including the general arc of the Stephanides family's life, the suburb they move to, the bar/grill that Lefty and Milton open, and the struggles with class and ethnicity that Cal faces. Middlesex is not, however, an autobiography. While the novel was not immediately successful upon release, it quickly became a bestseller after winning a Pulitzer Prize and being including in Oprah's Book Club.

Critical reception has been mostly positive. Many critics praise Eugenides' depiction of Detroit and young love and praise the novel's scope and emotional depth. Other critics are dissatisfied with the scope of Middlesex, claiming that it is two separate stories (an immigration narrative and an intersex narrative) joined together to the discredit of both. Nonetheless, Middlesex remains very popular, having sold over three million copies.