Reviewing Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex

April 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

“This is a great book! You’ll love it,” insisted the librarian when, weeks after reserving Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex, I was finally able to take it home. The positive reactions people have had to this novel, the long waiting lists to reserve it and the raving reviews ever since its release did come to affect how I approached reading Middlesex. Needless to say, I was convinced this book would be a page turner.

Thus, I began Middlesex completely assured that I had a thoroughly entertaining and easy read ahead of me, which is probably why I initially struggled. As I quickly learnt, Middlesex is not necessarily a book that can be flipped open to pass the minutes on the train. Middlesex requires full concentration. That’s not to say that the experience of reading it is hard-going, but the story is so dense, so full of beautiful turns of phrase and so wonderfully expressed that to give it any less than your full attention is to do it a horrible disservice.

The unlucky inheritor of a mutated gene, Calliope Stephanides is “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.” Middlesex is told from Cal’s perspective as he attempts to explain himself, through a retelling of his family history. His story begins in Smyrna more than fifty years earlier when Cal’s grandparents leave the flaming, war-ravaged city for America. By the time Desdemona and Lefty arrive in the Land of Opportunity, they have become husband and wife. The ramifications of  their incestual union are seen firsthand in Cal’s experience generations later, but first our narrator traces the lives of his grandparents as they establish themselves in industrial Detroit in the 1920s, and then the lives of his own parents growing up.

While I would like to attribute my slow start with Middlesex to the fact that I began reading it in less than favourable conditions, I must admit I did become much more involved in the story once the focus shifted from Cal’s grandparents and parents to Cal. While I found descriptions of Smyrna and the exploration of racial tensions in Detroit in the 1930s fascinating, there was a part of me that was impatient to learn more about Cal’s experience of growing up a hermaphrodite. So if like me, you find yourself just a little disheartened when starting Middlesex do persist, dear reader because the latter half does not disappoint.

If Middlesex taught me anything, it is that neither gender nor sexuality can be defined absolutely, and the second half of the novel explores this idea to its fullest. In the end, we are all just people trying to work ourselves out. The complexities of everyday life, including our relationships, are of far greater importance and significance than whether one labels themselves male or female. Setting Cal’s story against that of his parents’ and grandparents’, and furthermore against the wide array of characters that populate industrial Detroit as it undergoes its own transformation over the decades, helps consolidate this fact.

While Cal’s life as a hermaphrodite is the thread that ties Middlesex together, it is the rich characters and settings created by Eugenides that give the story its gravity and believability. By setting Cal’s condition, so foreign to most of us and beyond our comprehension, against a world so rich with detail, one cannot help but find something to relate to in Cal’s story, whether that be the awkwardness associated with puberty, or the delicate nature of family dynamics. Given the rich world Eugenides has created around Cal, it is no surprise that there has been confusion regarding whether Middlesex is autobiographical. The characters are so honest in their feelings, the details of Cal’s condition so specific and well-researched and the world created by Eugenides so complex that the reader cannot help but believe its reality.

While it may take awhile, Eugenides’ novel will suck you in. It did me, and the librarian was right.  I did love Middlesex. And if you have an appreciation for marvellous storytelling, you will too.

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