In My Opinion:
A Book Review of Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Middlesex, a strange tale about a Greek family, a lot of incest, and the hermaphroditic child that resulted from said incest. I’ve been curious about this book for a long time, and now that I’ve read it, I still don’t know exactly what to think.
Middlesex is the kind of book that I find extremely difficult to put down. I finished the 529 page novel in five days, and all of those were very busy days for me with little time to read. I found myself reading late into the night, promising myself I would stop after just one more chapter, then bulldozing through the chapter breaks as though they weren’t there. Having said that, at no time would I have said that I loved the book, or even really liked it. There is nothing in this novel to make a person feel good, though there is plenty to make a person think. The characters, particularly the protagonist, Calliope (or “Cal,” as he becomes) Stephanides, seem to suffer an inordinate amount of catastrophe. The elaborate story of the Stephanides family begins in 1922, in Turkey, and ends in modern-day United States. Cal narrates his family’s history with a curious omnipotence, displaying perfect knowledge of the thoughts, feelings, and secret actions of his grandparents, parents, and other relatives. Indeed, although this is Cal’s story, the back story is so immense that the reader doesn’t return to Cal’s life until more than 200 pages into the novel.
Eugenides does a wonderfully sympathetic job of telling this story, particularly the incestuous parts that would normally be downright revolting. It is revealed that Cal’s grandparents were brother and sister, as well as third cousins, and his parents were second cousins. The result of this tangled genetic web is something called a 5-Alpha Reductase Pseudohermaphrodite, a child born with ambiguous genitalia, in this case raised as a girl, who turned out to be chromosomally male. This unusual but very real condition is fascinating to consider and very difficult to comprehend in terms of nature versus nurture and gender identity, hence the novel’s title. Middlesex is both the name of Cal’s childhood home and an apropos term for his life, as a person who lived as a female for fourteen years, and then discovered that he was actually male.
The writing is brilliant and moving, and the story is certainly unique, but I’m still not sure I would recommend reading Middlesex. When I finally finished the novel and my frenzied week of reading came to an end, I really didn’t feel satisfied or fulfilled in any way. Instead, I just felt sad, for Cal and his fictional family, and sad for anyone who has such a difficult time finding a place in the world.