Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is a dense, sprawling epic that successfully marries a unique family experience with Greek and American history. The story follows the Stephanides family from a small town in Greece to Detroit and finally suburban Grosse Pointe. The impetus for this trip back in time is a gender identity struggle by Calliope Stephanides. In other words, why exactly is Calliope a hermaphrodite?
Yes, the central subject matter of Middlesex is the incestuous relationships that cause a recessive gene to bubble up to the surface. So if you’re uncomfortable with sexuality, incest or hermaphrodites you may want to pass on Middlesex. However, that would be your loss because Eugenides does a brilliant job of making these topics accessible and relevant. I’m not the only one who thinks so, the Pulitzer Board thought so too.
The story starts out with an exploration of Greek history and a frightening look at the destruction of Smyrna in 1922. I’m always impressed when a writer makes me uncomfortable. And there are passages in this section of Middlesex that made me wince, to think and to appreciate what I have.
Desdemona and Lefty, a brother and sister, escape Smyrna and make their way to Detroit. Through Desdemona and Lefty we are immersed in a number of detailed and evocative vignettes that range from the conditions of the Ford automotive plant, to rum-running, to a nascent ‘Nation of Islam’ sect to the race riots of 1967. If there’s one flaw to Middlesex it’s the sometimes tenuous relationships that string these scenic detours together.
By this time you’re wondering when exactly you’re going to learn about Calliope. (A subconscious backseat ‘are we there yet?’ whine.) It’s a very clever device to keep the reader moving forward in the family history. In discussing Middlesex with others, it seems many had problems with this structure. They just “couldn’t get past the first 100 pages” or found it “too slow.” I say, stop to smell the roses! These sections, though disconnected from the plot, are pitch perfect. Say no to instant gratification and just enjoy the top notch writing.
Sure enough, the next generation is introduced and we then ride along with Calliope’s parents, Milton and Tessie. It’s here that the novel shifts away from history and more toward interpersonal drama. The writing is too detailed and descriptive to ever devolve into a soap opera, but all the ingredients are there. We also begin to delve into Calliope’s formative years which finally culminates in an intense relationship with a redheaded female classmate dubbed the Obscure Object.
Then, finally, the payoff. Eugenides chronicles the awakening, struggle and journey of Calliope into adulthood. There’s no doubt that this part of the novel is compelling and gives Middlesex something other similar novels lack. Certainly you’ll remember this theme, but it’s what surrounds it that really has a lasting impact: the struggle for identity, the complex nature of family, the random events that bring about change in a person’s life.
One of my favorite books of 2007, I highly recommend Middlesex.