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Middlesex | Plot Summary

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Summary

Book 1

Middlesex begins with the narrator, Cal Stephenides, introducing the peculiar circumstances surrounding his birth. Cal will be born again at 14, although not in the traditional, baptismal sense. Rather he will be reborn a boy after 14 years as a girl. His grandmother, Desdemona Stephanides, portends his rebirth, swinging a spoon over his pregnant mother's body and proclaiming a boy. Everyone in the extended Stephanides clan is aware that Milton and Tessie, Cal's parents, want a girl. In fact, Milton and Tessie deliberately try to have a girl; they believe that by closely monitoring Tessie's ovulation cycle, they can scientifically conceive a girl. When Cal is seemingly born as a girl, no one (except perhaps his grandmother Desdemona, whose swinging spoon has never been wrong) thinks to examine her more closely. She is christened Calliope Helen Stephanides and begins to narrate her family's story.

Elutherios "Lefty" and Desdemona Stephanides live in a small Greek village in Turkey, up the slope from Bursa, a long-ago capital of the Ottoman Empire. They are brother and sister, silk farmers, orphaned by the war between Turkey and Greece that emancipated the Greeks in Asia Minor from Turkish rule. Desdemona and Lefty, a year apart at 21 and 20, are lonely and grief-stricken. Desdemona tends to the silkworms and their cocoons, and Lefty sells them, then gambles away their profits. Desdemona tries to find a girl in their small village for Lefty to marry. Lefty finds no one as alluring as his sister, who is also his third cousin, as it is a small village with no shortage of inbreeding. The two consider each other when suddenly they hear explosions "and looked down to see, in firelight, the Greek army in full retreat."

The siblings flee to Smyrna as the Greek army retreats. The Turkish army is vengeful, killing Greeks and Armenians in the city as the Greek and English fleets flee the city, leaving the Greek and Armenian populations to fend for themselves. Lefty persuades Desdemona to marry him if they can get out of Smyrna alive. With his schoolboy French, Lefty gets visas from the French for himself, his sister, and a grief-stricken doctor, Dr. Philobosian, whose entire family is murdered by Turkish soldiers while he attends to wounded civilians nearby. The doctor had shown Lefty kindness earlier—bandaging a wounded thumb and giving him money for bread. After Lefty and Desdemona arrive in Greece, they board a ship for New York, bringing Dr. Philobosian along with them once again.

Once they board the ship, Lefty and Desdemona pretend not to know one another and stage an elaborate ruse of meeting. Lefty proposes and Desdemona, using her mother's maiden name, accepts his proposal; they are married by the ship's captain. They arrive in New York, married and ready to become citizens, sponsored by their cousin Sourmelina (Lina). They know Sourmelina will keep their secret, as they will keep the secret of her preference for women over her husband.

Book 2

Cal meets an American expatriate named Julie, of whom he is fond. The narrative then jumps back in time to Depression-era Detroit, and the story of Lefty and Desdemona.

After transporting her silkworms across the ocean, Desdemona is forced to get rid of them at Ellis Island; they are considered parasites. They lose Dr. Philobosian at Ellis Island and assume they will never see him again. Lefty and Desdemona arrive in Detroit. It is 1922 and Detroit has just begun the manufacture of motor vehicles. They again meet their cousin, Sourmelina, her name now Americanized to Lina. She has come to America to marry a stranger after being caught with one too many female "friends." Once at Sourmelina's house, they meet her husband, Jimmy Zizmo, whom Lina describes as a Pontian Greek. Desdemona, noting his dark skin, is horrified to think he may be Muslim. Jimmy is a vegetarian, an amateur herbalist, and an "importer." He and Lina have a loveless marriage that was predicated upon the large dowry she brought into it. The four settle in together, with Lefty and Desdemona paying rent to the Zizmos.

Jimmy gets Lefty a job at the Ford factory. Lefty deals with the monotony of the assembly line and the company's zealotry about cleanliness and Americanization, taking pains to do well in Ford's English school and participating in the Ford Motor Company Pageant celebrating America's "Melting Pot." However, he is fired after inspectors from Ford's "Sociological Department" determine that Jimmy Zizmo has a police record: "you can understand that Mr. Ford can't have workers maintaining such associations," he is told. Meanwhile, Lina and Desdemona both realize they are pregnant.

Implicitly understanding that Lefty was fired because of his association with him, Jimmy Zizmo brings Lefty into his rum-running operation. Dr. Philobosian shows up in Detroit; he describes the chances of both women getting pregnant in the same night as "hundred to one odds." He frightens Desdemona with tales of deformed babies caused by families intermarrying. As the pregnancies progress, Desdemona predicts, correctly, that Lina will have a girl. Dr. Philobosian delivers a girl to Lina, three weeks early. She is named Theodora but called Tessie. The baby's light skin, like Lefty's, makes Jimmy suspicious. Jimmy Zizmo, crazed with the idea that Lina had an affair with Lefty, drives Lefty over the ice to Canada. Lefty gets out of the car as it crashes through the ice. His son is born that night and named Miltonedes, Milton or Milt for short. After Milton's birth, the relationship between Lefty and Desdemona changes, becoming more traditional. Lefty opens a speakeasy called The Zebra Room. He and Desdemona, growing apart, occasionally comfort one another. Another child is born, Zoë. Lina and Tessie move out of the house, and Lefty and Desdemona take over the mortgage. The stress of the Depression on the Stephanides's marriage forces Desdemona to get a job.

Desdemona, answering an ad for a silk worker, finds herself in the African American section of town with the burgeoning Nation of Islam. They are concerned about hiring a white woman, as Mr. Fard, their leader, preaches self-reliance. However, as Desdemona is from Turkey (although she is Greek), they decide that she may be "mixed" and hire her. Desdemona realizes that Mr. Fard is Jimmy Zizmo. Zizmo/Fard leaves Detroit after one of his followers is accused of ritual human sacrifice.

Lefty closes the speakeasy and moves above ground to a bar also named The Zebra Room. Twenty-year-old Milt starts courting his cousin Tessie by playing her tunes on the clarinet; he plays so close to her that she feels it on her skin. When she becomes engaged to a student priest, Michael Antoniou, Milt joins the navy. World War II is raging, and Milt, stationed in California, is about to be sent overseas. Tessie, at home in Detroit, realizes that she loves Milt. Offered a chance to take the entrance exam for the Naval Academy, Milt takes it and gets a reprieve from the war to report to Annapolis. Tessie and Milt marry, much to the chagrin of Father Mike. Father Mike marries Zoë, Milt's sister.

Milton and Tessie have Chapter Eleven, Calliope's older brother. Milt opens a diner in his father's space. Lefty feels increasingly useless and starts playing the numbers. He bankrupts himself, and Lefty and Desdemona lose their house and move in with Milt, Tessie, and the children.

Book 3

In 1960 Calliope Helen Stephanides is born. Dr. Philobosian, distracted by a pretty nurse, pronounces her a healthy baby girl. On the day his granddaughter is born, Lefty has his first stroke. He regains all of his faculties but once recovered can no longer speak. Callie, as she is called, is baptized and pees all over Father Mike: "In all the commotion, no one wondered about the engineering involved."

Callie grows, and the diner begins losing money. Racial tensions in Detroit start to escalate. In 1967 riots shake Detroit. Milton goes to defend the diner until he realizes that it is worth more destroyed than it is worth extant. The diner is firebombed, and Milton collects insurance from the two policies that Lefty had taken out on the place. The family moves to Grosse Pointe, an affluent suburb. The only house Milton is able to buy (all cash) in restricted Grosse Pointe is a modern house on Middlesex Boulevard, designed by a little-known architect of the Prairie School. Chapter Eleven and Callie settle in. Callie makes her first friend, Clementine Stark, with whom she practices kissing. Lefty has another stroke and begins to regress. As Callie grows older, Lefty grows more dependent. He dies and Desdemona takes to her bed. She stays there for the next 10 years, except for a bath every Friday.

Milton opens a chain of hot dog stands called Hercules Hot Dogs. Chapter Eleven, geeky, and Callie, beautiful, help their mother take care of their grandmother. Callie continues to grow, but does not become more feminine. The breasts of the girls in her class grow, and Callie is aware that she has none. As Hercules Hot Dogs grows more successful, Milton grows more conservative. When a federal judge threatens to desegregate public schools through bussing, Callie is sent to a private girls' school in Grosse Pointe. Chapter Eleven leaves for college in Ann Arbor, his draft number ensuring that he'll never go to war. Callie becomes less beautiful as she ages.

Chapter Eleven brings home a counterculture girlfriend, enraging Milton. With tensions high at home, Callie devotes herself to school. She develops a crush on a girl at school whom she calls "The Obscure Object." Her advanced English class puts on Antigone. Callie plays Tiresias and the Obscure Object plays Antigone. They become friends, studying their lines together away from school. On the night of the play, the girl who plays Ismene dies suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm while onstage. While comforting the Object, Callie realizes that she feels happy: "I had the Obscure Object in my arms."

Callie and the Obscure Object grow increasingly close. Callie lies to her mother about getting her period so that she can avoid going to the doctor: "I did cramps the way Meryl Streep did accents." Callie begins to notice her "crocus," or genitalia. Things are tense at home because Greece and Turkey are warring, causing the Stephanides to cancel their vacation. Milton's pro-America stance is seen as treachery by their Greek American friends.

Callie goes to visit the Obscure Object at her summerhouse. Jerome, the Object's brother, asks her to be in his student film about vampires. They flirt. The Object is flirting with a boy from Grosse Pointe who has a summerhouse nearby—the boy whose drunken car crash killed their schoolmate earlier in the year. The four teenagers go hiking to an abandoned hunting lodge in the woods. Callie, feeling betrayed by the Object, loses her virginity to Jerome. Jerome notices nothing unusual. The Object then feels betrayed by Callie. She and Callie start a covert sexual relationship, and Jerome catches them. He and Callie have a fistfight, and Callie runs away. She is hit by a tractor as she is running and taken to the emergency room. Meanwhile, in the present, Cal is nervous and stops calling Julie.

Book 4

In the hospital in Petoskey, Michigan, Callie is diagnosed with a malformation of her urinary tract and a hormonal deficiency. Worried, her parents take her to see Dr. Philobosian, who refers her to an endocrinologist. Callie's parents then take her to see a specialist in New York City, Dr. Luce, at the Sexual Disorders and Gender Identity Clinic.

Callie and her mother stay in New York for weeks as she is examined by doctors. Callie lies to Dr. Luce, thinking that she is protecting herself. She says that she is turned on by boys and tells him that she lost her virginity. Callie is diagnosed with 5-alpha reductase deficiency or male psuedohermaphrodism. However, according to Luce's thinking, that doesn't mean she has a male gender identity. Luce suggests hormone injections and surgery so that Callie's outsides will conform to her insides, or what he believes to be her insides. While Callie's parents are meeting with the doctor, Callie researches 5-alpha reductase deficiency. In the dictionary entry for hermaphrodite, it says, "see synonyms at MONSTER." Back at the doctor's office, Callie sneaks a peek at her medical files. There she confirms that she isn't just suffering from a small hormonal imbalance, but that she is genetically a male. Callie runs away, telling her parents that she is a boy and that Dr. Luce is a liar.

Callie changes her name to Cal, buys some boys' clothing, and gets a haircut. He hitches rides to California. Hitchhiking, he meets Bob Presto, who runs a sex club in San Francisco called Sixty-Niners. After being beaten terribly in San Francisco, he calls Bob Presto. Soon he is part of Presto's underwater show, performing as Hermaphroditus. At the club he meets Zora, a strikingly beautiful intersex person, and Carmen, a preoperative male-to-female transsexual. Carmen has both breasts and a penis and is billed as Ellie and Her Electrifying Eel. Zora is billed as Melanie the Mermaid. She increases his awareness of the intersex community. Meanwhile, his parents are frantically trying to find him.

Milton gets calls asking for ransom. Not calling the police, he goes to meet the "kidnapper," only to find it is his brother-in-law, Father Mike. Chasing Mike over the Canadian border, he crashes his car and dies.

When Cal's show is raided by the police, he finally calls home and learns from his brother that his father has just died. Cal goes home, and rather than go to the funeral, he performs the traditional male job of guarding the house to keep his father's spirit from reentering. Desdemona, slipping in and out of lucidity, meets her grandson and realizes that her spoon was right. Cal sees Julie again and tells her about his condition. They agree to give their relationship a try.

Middlesex Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Desdemona and Lefty leave Smyrna and marry.

Rising Action

2 Desdemona and Lefty move to Detroit.

3 Milton and Tessie are born.

4 Milton and Tessie marry.

5 The Stephanides move to Grosse Pointe.

6 Callie falls in the love with the Obscure Object.

7 Callie and Jerome have sex.

8 Callie begins a sexual relationship with the Obscure Object.

Climax

9 Callie finds out she is a boy.

Falling Action

10 Cal runs away.

11 Cal learns about being intersex.

Resolution

12 Milton dies, and Cal returns home.

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