In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides, a student at a girls’ school in Grosse Pointe, finds herself drawn to a chain-smoking, strawberry blond classmate with a gift for acting. The passion that furtively develops between them–along with Callie’s failure to develop–leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. In fact, she is not really a girl at all.
The explanation for this shocking state of affairs takes us out of suburbia- back before the Detroit race riots of 1967, before the rise of the Motor City and Prohibition, to 1922, when the Turks sacked Smyrna and Callie’s grandparents fled for their lives. Back to a tiny village in Asia Minor where two lovers, and one rare genetic mutation, set in motion the metamorphosis that will turn Callie into a being both mythical and perfectly real: a hermaphrodite.
Spanning eight decades–and one unusually awkward adolescence- Jeffrey Eugenides’s long-awaited second novel is a grand, utterly original fable of crossed bloodlines, the intricacies of gender, and the deep, untidy promptings of desire. It marks the fulfillment of a huge talent, named one of America’s best young novelists by both Granta and The New Yorker.
More than a few readers have felt a little misled by Middlesex’s reputation as a famous novel about hermaphrodism only to discover an intercontinental, multi-generational family saga instead. Cal’s sexual status really only takes center stage in the last quarter of the novel, but this is an intentional move on Eugenides’ part. He’s very clear that the story of a hermaphrodite is not just the story of one person. It’s about that person, their parents, their parents’ parents, and the historical events that make people, people. Nothing exists in a vacuum. I didn’t really get that that’s what Eugenides was doing, not until the end. But the narrator is always reminding the reader how everything he’s relating combined to produce him and his atypical sexual status. It sounds strange to say that the fall of Smyrna in 1922 created a hermaphrodite, but it’s true. So did the Ford assembly line, Detroit’s race riots, and Richard Nixon. Everything plays a part, everything is connected. So viewing hermaphrodism, or, indeed, any bodily status or identity as unnatural and existing outside the “natural order of things” is just wrong.
Middlesex covers a pretty wide variety of topics and has quite the emotional range. It starts off pretty grim but becomes happier and more optimistic over time with familial tragedy giving way to adolescent angst. Perhaps this is Eugenides once again pointing out how insignificant things like sex and gender are compared to all the horrors and injustices in the world. I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Kristoffer Tabori and it was absolutely delightful. Eugenides takes such a cinematic approach to his writing, and Tabori did a wonderful job capturing the theatrical tone. It felt like listening to a radio play most of the time. Eugenides does have a few writing tics that become pretty noticeable by the later part of the novel, but by that point they’ve become lovable clichés. The whole experience of reading (or listening to, rather) Middlesex was excellent, and there’s no doubt in my mind it was worthy of its Pulitzer.