In 1959, Dr. Philobosian and a nurse named Rosalee deliver Cal at Women's Hospital. They are too distracted by their romantic attraction to notice Cal's physical "deformity." At home, Lefty has collapsed from a stroke and Desdemona wails above him, simultaneously distraught and elated that, now that the worst has happened, she has nothing to worry about. To Desdemona's surprise, Lefty survives his stroke, but he is left unable to speak. Calliope is an awkwardly beautiful child, with no one "perfect" feature but instead a strange but harmonious combination. Milton refuses to baptize her for two months, but he eventual gives into Desdemona's religious pressure. Assumption, the Greek Orthodox church they attend, has grown and moved to a new site. The construction is poor, however, because the contractor, Bart Skiotis, siphoned off funds for himself and used sub-par materials. In this church of shaky foundations, Father Mike baptizes Calliope, submerging her underwater three times. The final time, Calliope "partially baptizes" Father Mike, peeing on him as she erupts from the water. Milton and Chapter Eleven are amused, Tessie is embarrassed, and Desdemona takes it as an ill omen.
In most ways still a visitor to America for the past forty years, Desdemona finally begins to assimilate to American culture. She and Lefty have replaced conversation in their lives with the sound of television, although she still resists other cultural intrusions. Despite her early distrust of Calliope, Calliope quickly becomes her favorite because of their similarities. She and Lefty take care of Calliope every day, making themselves useful to prevent being a burden. In family home videos, you can see the whole Stephanides family as they change - Desdemona and Lefty getting older, Milton becoming more distant from the family as he is absorbed into his work, Tessie growing more distant from Milton, Chapter Eleven becoming a spoiled American child, and Calliope just beginning. This is the video Dr. Luce borrows from the Stephanides and uses to prove his gender theory, which is that gender is constructed by how one is treated as a child.
Calliope grows up visiting the diner. The diner's neighborhood has become heavily African-American, and the diner has suffered as result. Eight-year-old Calliope strikes up a friendship with an African-American activist named Marius Wyxzewixard Challouehliczilczese Grimes who preaches from a chair in the neighborhood. He wakes her up to the racial problems stirring in Detroit and to her father's own racist behavior.
It is 1967 and America is tense. From Newark to Watts, race riots have broken out, and Detroit is simmering in anticipation. Milton worries constantly about the restaurant's declining financial state and his anxieties about riots force him to sleep with a loaded gun under his pillow. Then, on a hot evening in July, the inevitable happens: riots erupt in response to police invasions and arrests not too far from the Zebra Room. Jimmy Fioretos calls Milton to warn him about the riots,and Milton, still naked and erect from sleeping, jumps out of bed to go save the restaurant, scarring little Calliope. He speeds in his car to the restaurant, crashing his car into the wreckage of the riots.
At their home on Seminole, the Stephanides family is hiding in the attic, watching the race riots on television in terror. Desdemona repeatedly compares the experience to Smyrna, and neighbors shift their opinions of mild tolerance towards blacks to horror. The death, injury, and damage tolls rise over the course of three days, and the Stephanides wonder about the missing Milton. Finally, the government sends in troops to quell the riot. A tank rolls past the Stephanides' home, and Calliope speeds after it on her bike, trying to save her father. Meanwhile, Milton has holed up in the store with his gun, trying to protect it from looters. Morrison, an old, stingy, black customer of Milton's comes to the door and is shocked to find Milton there. He asks for cigarettes and Milton, overwhelmed by the whole situation, asks him, "What's the matter with you people?" to which Morrison responds, "The matter with us is you." The tanks roll into the streets and shoot all the "snipers," leaving many dead in their wake. As the tanks roll away, Milton breathes a sigh of relief, which is interrupted by the Molotov cocktail that Marius Grimes throws in through the window. As Milton watches the place go up in smoke, he calculates the profit he will make from his fire insurance policies. He spots Calliope, who has biked there to come save him, and together they retreat back to their house.
The Stephanides family profits from the riots thanks to Lefty's three fire insurance policies, and Milton starts making money hand over fist. He buys the family a Cadillac and soon has his sights set on a house in the affluent Grosse Point suburb. Despite the "Point system" designed by Grosse Point real estate agents to prevent "undesirables" from moving into the neighborhood, Milton manages to buy a house there on Middlesex Boulevard. The house is incredibly modern looking without doors and with lots of glass, designed by Hudson Clark of the Prairie School. Tessie and Desdemona are unhappy with the house, but the children are amused by its contraptions. On a walk with Lefty, Calliope notices something wrong - Lefty is disoriented. He suffered a stroke the week before but did not tell anyone.
Bored with Lefty, Calliope looks for friends her own age. Clementine Stark, a girl about Calliope's age, lives behind the Stephanides in a house that looks like a castle. She invites Calliope over and surprises her by asking her to practice kissing. Calliope realizes that she likes this strange sensation, but keeps it secret. She and Clementine become friends and one day, while they are playing together innocently yet sexually in the bathhouse, they realize that Lefty is there and has probably seen their games. Calliope soon realizes that there is something wrong with Lefty, who has had another stroke. She blames herself and Clementine and prays for forgiveness. Lefty survives, but his dementia progresses until he stops being connected with reality at all. Desdemona panics as Lefty forgets their marriage, referring to her as "sis" with others around, but no one suspects anything. Soon after, Lefty suffers one last stroke and dies. Everyone is distraught. After returning to the house from the funeral, Desdemona announces that she is going to bed, and she doesn't leave it for the next ten years.
The Mediterranean Diet
In the present, Cal has taken a vacation with Julie, going to visit an old German town of decayed castles. Despite having a good time with her, Cal is petrified by the fear of revealing his "deformity," and starts excluding Julie from his life. They drift apart.
Meanwhile, in the past, Desdemona is desperately trying to die. Her hypochondria picks up; she complains of imaginary ailments to Calliope, insisting that she see several different doctors. None of them can find anything wrong with her, but Desdemona still prepares for her funeral. Meanwhile, Milton uses the rest of the insurance money to start Hercules Hot Dogs, a Greek hot dog franchise. It quickly grows from three locations to locations all over the Midwest to Florida. Thanks to the flexing shape of the hot dogs, Hercules Hot Dogs soon gathers wide name recognition and the Stephanides become comfortably wealthy.
Chapter Eleven and Calliope continue to grow, and Chapter Eleven passes through adolescence as a nerdy and unpopular boy. Calliope is the opposite: a beautiful young girl desired by many. They grow apart, as Chapter Eleven discovers masturbation and Calliope is drawn into taking care of her grandmother. Desdemona becomes a voluntary invalid, requiring Calliope and Tessie's care often. After her girlfriend's death, Lina moves back to Detroit. Thoroughly Americanized, she sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the highly traditional Desdemona. The Stephanides socialize with their neighbors as history marches all around them: Detroit is forced to desegregate its schools, discrimination lawsuits are erupting, two men hijack a plane out of frustration with the legal system, and Detroit gets its first black mayor.
The girls around Calliope are also changing. As her female friends and acquaintances develop breasts, Calliope frets, unclear about the specifics of puberty thanks to Dr. Philobosian's "decrepitude" and Tessie's "prudishness." Dr. Philobosian has married Nurse Rosalee, and together they run a practice still grounded in past medical techniques. What Calliope knows about puberty she pieced together from girls at camp and Aunt Zo's mumblings. Still, puberty eludes her as she watches all her classmates develop and change. She begins to blame her lack of development on the "Mediterranean Diet," which a German scientist has been studying Desdemona to learn more about. As Calliope argues with her mother about diet and puberty, Milton screams in anger. Judge Roth has decided to re-district Detroit, combining many of the suburbs with the urban schools. Calliope and Chapter Eleven will be subject to the new busing laws.
Thanks to Judge Roth's mandatory desegregation, Calliope's parents place her in an all-girls private school. There she struggles with adolescence, bumbling her way through team sports, teasing, and undescended secret testicles. Calliope particularly struggles with the locker room, where her non-existent breasts and period separate her from other girls and make her feel self-conscious. She sees the popular thin girls pretending to be Eastern, wearing tiny silver charm bracelets, and recognizes how lazy and useless they are. Calliope passes by them to the section of "ethnic girls" at the back of the locker room. In these outsiders she takes comfort, but she is still wary about exposing her body. Meanwhile, Chapter Eleven has avoided being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, instead going to study engineering at the University of Michigan. Tessie and Milton fill their time by trying to read all of the Great Books, but they only make it through a couple. Calliope reads a couple of them herself and discovers that she is having a growth spurt. Hair begins to appear in secret places and her voice begins to drop. Despite this, no one notices that Calliope is actually a boy.
In her in-between phase, Calliope is quite popular, possibly because her female classmates are drawn to her emerging masculinity. The changing continues, however, and Calliope becomes more "freakish," towering over her classmates with her now-frizzy hair. Calliope responds to the loss of control over her body by trying to control her hair and refusing to cut it.
Beyond gender mixing and confusion, Middlesex focuses on ethnic and racial change as a result of immigration and U.S. policies. Located in Detroit, the Stephanides family experiences both a strong Greek-American immigrant culture and a burgeoning African American society seeking culture and equality. Through Milton, we see how the Stephanides leave behind their immigrant roots and assimilate into typical American middle class culture. In this way, Middlesex follows a typical immigration narrative through its three generations. As Milton renounces his Greekness, something that his parents struggled to keep, he adopts a superior attitude towards African Americans. He parallels many people of his generation, and this tension comes to a head in the Detroit race riots. As Calliope's "friend" Marius Grimes calls out to her on the corner, we become implicitly aware of how races struggle against each other. Milton flees the Zebra Room in a personal "white flight," yet even he cannot escape racial prejudices - the person who attacks the Stephanides' diner yells the Greek congratulatory word "opa" followed by the curse "motherfucker." This vignette undermines the cheery and artificial "Melting Pot" pageant earlier in the novel, conveying the difficulty of attaining a positive "hybridity" within a country.
Part of this discussion of ethnicity and assimilation must center around the place of consumerism in family life, or the status of objects. Cal notes that, when Lefty loses his power of speech after his stroke, the sound of television replaces conversation in his and Desdemona's lives. Cal also categorizes time periods in her life by which Cadillac her father was driving - the futuristic Fleetwood, the Eldorado, the sedan DeVille, or the "Florida Special." Consumerism fills the void within family life. When the race riots happen, Milton idiotically runs back to his store to protect it from looters, valuing his property over his life. Middlesex takes an ambiguous stance on whether this shift to consumerism is good or bad. In the case of Milton's values, it is decidedly a negative characterization, perhaps because Milton doesn't think about or understand why he values certain things. In other cases, however, consumerism and objects are a crucial and enlightening part of Cal's history - background details that give him insight into the rest of his life.
In contrast to its effort to accurately depict the Detroit race riots, Middlesex wavers back and forth on the importance of remembering history as it actually happened. When Calliope is a child, she asks Lefty what happened to his missing fingernail. Instead of telling her the truth, that it was removed by a Turkish soldier as a form of torture when he and Desdemona were trying to flee Turkey, he lies, telling her that it happened as part of an accident. He sugarcoats the answer, making it possible for his granddaughter to grow up without being exposed to his and Desdemona's paralyzing trauma. Desdemona, on the other hand, goes out of her way to "remember" history. She sends away for "Turkish Atrocity" fans, which have statistics from the Turkish massacre of the Greeks and Armenians printed on them. Desdemona buys these fans in order to promote remembrance in a world that quickly forgets genocides and atrocities. Even in the United States, history is written and re-written. Cal wonders to himself whether the violent occurrences in Detroit were riots, as the police said, or actual guerrilla revolution (the option that Cal leans towards).
As Detroit burns down after the racial riots, Cal points to the flag of Detroit rising above the city with the words "Speramus meliora; resuget cineribus" - "We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes." This is the actual motto of Detroit, a reference to an early fire that destroyed much of the city. Fitting in nicely with Cal's circular narrative, we see in this section Detroit burn again, this time with the Stephanides' diner. This parallels the earlier fire that ravaged Smyrna while Lefty and Desdemona tried to escape. Written into both the city's history and the family's history is a series of disastrous fires/deaths and regenerative rebirths out of those ashes. For Detroit, it rises from the first fire in the automobile industrial capital of the world. For the Stephanides, Lefty and Desdemona rise from their fire as husband and wife instead of brother and sister. Milton rises from his fire upper-middle class instead of middle class. This motto underlies one of the main thrusts of the novel, that no matter how bad things seem, you can be reborn into a better life, into a new person, and then you can succeed.
Change is never easy, however, and at the end of this section we see Calliope going through growing pains. The title of the chapter, "Wolverette," refers to her all-girls school's mascot, a female wolverine. The character is a freakish blend of a hairy wild animal and a girl, a cheeky play on the horrors of puberty. Calliope, once a captivatingly beautiful little girl, is now changing in ways she doesn't understand. Her hair becomes unruly and sprouts in strange places. Her movements become ungainly. These physical changes and her school's mascot foreshadow the discovery that will come by the end of Book Three, that Calliope is not, in fact, female.