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It’s in the genes

A look at how family shapes a person’s life, through genetics and fate.

By Laura Tate/Editor

It was like looking into my own eyes. Without the aid of a mirror. That’s the thought that hit me after I left the book signing, remembering the way the eyes stared straight back at me, unflinching, for a moment. They could have come from his father’s side and not his mother’s, sister of my father. But gazing into them, I could see they were the same color as mine, a more green than hazel, and almost had the same shape and were framed by the same dark brows.

They were the eyes of my first cousin Jeffrey Eugenides, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Middlesex” and of “Virgin Suicides,” his first novel, a haunting, touching story of five sisters and their mysterious, sad, cloistered lives. Eugenides read excerpts from “Middlesex” last week at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, as part of the UCLA Live Spoken Word program.

It was the first time we met.

When I was 14, I visited my father for the first time since I was seven, in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. Eugenides is from Grosse Point, Michigan, where the story in “Virgin,” and part of the story in “Middlesex,” takes place. My father, Glenn Tate, lived with my grandmother or Grammie, as we called her.

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Grammie Carol would sing praises of Eugenides, of how handsome he was, how smart, how talented. And she wanted me to meet him. She continued to sing his praises to me into my 20s. I believe she had the idea of “kissing cousins” on her mind. His mother, Wanda, also proudly spoke of her son, however, not with the same fervor and slant as Grammie.

Nevertheless, we never managed to be in the same town at the same time, so we never met, only heard about and saw photos of each other throughout the years.

It was with anticipation that I waited in line after the reading to surprise and meet him. I don’t know what I thought the moment would be like, or if it would mean anything. After all, we were only cousins.

But we are family, linked by a sister and brother, sharing the same genes. (That we both are writers, although I am sure I do not possess a fraction of his talent and skill, added to the interest in meeting him. And, I must say, to have a cousin who is a near famous author is an ego-boosting thing as well.)

Family is what the novel “Middlesex” is about. A Greek family, and a story told by the daughter in the family, or so she might be a daughter. Son she could be called as well. The narrator of the story is Calliope Stephanides, or Cal, a person who discovers she is not “normal,” a “freak” she thinks in her initial discovery of her mixed gender-a hermaphrodite.

Eugenides has been quoted in interviews explaining that he started out with the intention of writing a fictional story about a hermaphrodite, and not the saga of a family. But the history of this particular family, the genetics and the choices (Or is it fateful circumstances?), greatly decides the fate of Calliope.

Jeff Turrentine, in a review for the L.A. Times, writes, “Jeffrey Eugenides has taken the greatest mystery of all-What are we, exactly, and where do we come from?-and crafted a story that manages to be both illuminating and transcendent.”

Eugenides is half Greek, by his father’s side, and in a question and answer session after the reading, he said, because of the nature of Cal’s gender, the American Greeks did not “clasp it [the novel] to their Grecian breasts,” but it has been received well by Greeks overseas, as well as by the “intersex” community, the preferred terminology by that community for hermaphrodite. Eugenides says Greek mythology inspired the subject of intersex, explaining the tale of Hermaphrodites, a Greek youth who was transformed by the gods into half male, half female after a nymph who loved him was spurned by him.

When I began writing this piece, I had not yet read a page of “Middlesex.” It was to my surprise that the idea of “kissing cousins” pervades the beginning of the book, yet with even closer relations.

I have not finished the book yet, as with my cousin’s first novel, I can say Eugenides’ writing draws you in-the characters’ lives he describes-their hopes, dreams and despairs-entrance and captivate, leaving you wanting to know their destiny.

As I reached the table covered with a plastic green cloth where my cousin sat, obligingly signing book after book, I stuck out my hand and introduced myself, “Hi, I’m your cousin, Laura Tate.”

“Yes, I know,” he said immediately.

I was surprised by the quick response, thinking perhaps the media PR person had pointed me out to him.

“How did you know?” I asked him.

“I’ve seen pictures of you all these years,” he replied, matter of fact.

Well, of course, it was in the eyes.

“Middlesex,” Farrar, Straus, Giroux: Paperback $15; “Virgin Suicides,” FSG: Hardcover, $18. Future UCLA Spoken Word readings include Alice McDermott, National Book Award-winning writer of “Charming Billy,” Nov. 4; Peter Carey, author of the Booker Prize-winning “Oscar and Lucinda,” Nov. 20; and Tobias Wolff, who wrote the PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novella “The Barracks Thief,” Dec. 4. More information can be obtained by calling 310.825.2101 or visiting the Web site, www.uclalive.org.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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