When the Olympians mess around, humans suffer; it's axiomatic. So when Desdemona Stephanides and her jazz-loving brother, Lefty, fall in love on the slopes of Mount Olympus, any reader of Greek mythology will be wary: some poor innocent must pay the price. In Jeffrey Eugenides's sprawling, multigenerational new novel, that innocent is his narrator, Calliope Helen Stephanides, Desdemona and Lefty's American-born granddaughter. At fourteen Callie is discovered to be a boy - visibly a hermaphrodite but hormonally and chromosomally male. When a famous sex doctor advocates snipping her privates and upping her hormones to give her breasts, Callie bolts. She gets herself a haircut, buys a suit at the Salvation Army, and hitchhikes to San Francisco, where she plunges headlong into puberty and reinvents herself as Cal in the 1960s Haight-Ashbury.
Calliope's tale is a frequently hilarious, often touching account of the events that led to her birth, starting with her grandparents' incestuous marriage and immigration from Greece to Detroit in 1922. There, Lefty opens a speakeasy and Desdemona gets a job teaching the women of the fledgling Nation of Islam to raise silkworms (her one marketable skill). Their son, Milton, unwittingly intensifies the genetic pool by marrying his cousin Tessie (she's a closer cousin than he knows) - a union that results in a feckless son named Chapter Eleven and the sweet Callie, in whom all those Olympian sins and recessive genes collide.
Toward the end of the book, the middle-aged Cal describes a car chase between his father, Milton, and uncle, Mike: "It wasn't like a car chase in the movies," Cal reports. "There was no swerving, no near collisions. It was, after all, a car chase between a Greek Orthodox priest and a middle-aged Republican." The novel itself reads a little like that chase: 500 pages of leisurely intensity leavened with great good humor.
"A real Greek might end on this tragic note," Cal reflects after revealing the finale: his father's death as his El Dorado plunges off a bridge into the Detroit River. "But an American is inclined to stay upbeat. These days, whenever we talk about Milton, my mother and I come to the conclusion that he got out just in time." Milton, after all, never had to witness his daughter's return as a boy. "I like to think that my father's love for me was strong enough that he would have accepted me," Cal says. "But in some ways, it's better that we never had to work that out, he and I. With respect to my father,
I will always remain a girl. There's a kind of purity in that, the purity of childhood."
In the hands of a less talented or generous writer, Middlesex might have become an earnest examination of the complicated relationship between sex and gender - gender studies passing as fiction. Riddled with literary allusions and self-parodying metaphor, it could just as easily have become a postmodern lit. crit. novel. Instead Eugenides tells his story with a now-you-see-me, now-you-don't insouciance, and in the process creates a novel that is at once sweet and sassy and wise - proof that the Olympians are still shaking things up on earth.