This is the blog where we dissect the opening sentences of popular works of fiction. Few people outside of the writing community know how much blood, sweat, and tears go into crafting the perfect Opening Line; and for that reason, I want to bring attention to the incredible work that a writer puts into these first few words. Today we will examine Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.
First, let’s look at the blurb:
In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides finds herself drawn to a classmate at her girls’ school in Grosse Point, Michigan. That passion — along with her failure to develop — leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. The explanation for this is a rare genetic mutation — and a guilty secret — that have followed Callie’s grandparents from the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Prohibition-era Detroit and beyond, outlasting the glory days of the Motor City, the race riots of 1967, and the family’s second migration, into the foreign country known as suburbia. Thanks to the gene, Callie is part girl, part boy. And even though the gene’s epic travels have ended, her own odyssey has only begun.
Now, let’s examine the Opening Line:
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Hold on, what? Exactly. That’s how the author wants you to react.
Let’s break this down.
“I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960…”
The very first four words can be interpreted in a religious sense. Most Christians believe in being born again. From those words alone, maybe there’s nothing new here…but hold on, the weirdness is coming.
“…first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960…”
Okay, we’re actually making a comment about age and gender. If the next line were to say, but then again as a woman; still, nothing new here.
Let’s also take the serene January day, which is important. It was a nice day. The reader envisions a calm and peaceful day. Maybe there was a light snow. It might have been picturesque, but that’s all about to change.
“…and then again, as a teenage boy…”
Here’s where everything changes. How does one go from being born a baby girl to being born again as a teenage boy? What’s happening here? Is this metaphorical or literal?
“…in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan in August of 1974.”
In an emergency room? Well, that seems pretty literal. And if this story were about a transgender child who had an operation to reassign her sex, wouldn’t this be scheduled, and not in an emergency room?
The scene has definitely changed. We went from a calm day as a newborn baby in 1960 to the madness of an emergency room 14 years later. When I picture an emergency room, I think of something that happened unexpectedly: an accident or a major health scare. Since this is the when the narrator describes becoming a teenage boy, this alludes to a major plot point.
In this line, becoming a teenage boy appears to be completely unexpected and accidental. So what just happened?
If you want to find out, click on the Barnes & Noble link.
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