Sebastian Smee

Putting it all in

Not for nothing has Jeffrey Eugenides, on the strength of just one novel published seven years ago, been cropping up again and again in magazine lists of the top 10 or 25 young novelists in America. He has spent all these years in seclusion in Berlin cooking up a very cunning solution to the notorious literary divide between women’s fiction and men’s fiction: hermaphrodite fiction. A marketing dream. The narrator of Eugenides’ second novel, Middlesex, is a hermaphrodite, and, at least through the second half of the novel, which relates the narrator’s own life, you are sure to find aspects of Eugenides’ hero/heroine with which to identify, no matter what your gender. One minute it’s plucking eyebrows, the next it’s picking up the tab. Calliope Stephanides, as she is christened, introduces her 41-year-old self only briefly at the beginning of the novel, before stretching back across several generations, an ocean and a continent to a small village in Asia Minor, where her grandparents are beginning a beguiling romance.

Beguiling, because they are brother and sister. They are also in danger of becoming victims of a more pressing historical reality: the Turkish siege and destruction of the port of Smyrna. This first section of the book relates the fate of our frightened sibling lovers, on whose survival, needless to say, the narrator is counting.

What he couldn’t have counted on is a certain gene which, along with the wider dispensation of life, these illicit lovers will pass on to him, via his mother (in whom it remains benignly inactive). The gene, finally switched on, will have the strange effect of convincing everyone at Calliope’s birth that he is a beautiful little girl, when in fact he has X and Y chromosomes whose normal operation is thwarted by a condition called 5-Alpha-Reductase Deficiency.

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