Sure, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex was published back in the early 2000’s and won a Pulitzer in 2003. But this novel has stood up over the years and warrants reading and recommending again and again. From the time I first read it as a senior in high school to my most recent rereading this past month, the brilliance of Middlesex has not faded. I must also admit – I was surprised by how much of it I fully grasped during my younger years. But it was similarly delightful to recognize the seed of who I later became in my Middlesex-loving, 17 year old self. Brilliant though it may be, Middlesex is certainly not for everyone and I’m proud of my high school self for appreciating it so much.
During my later high school years, I was also on a huge Gabriel Garcia Marquez kick, which sheds some light on my obsession with Middlesex back in the day. Eugenides’ storytelling follows the Garcia Marquez vein with its multi-generational narrative and magical realist tone. The story is loosely narrated by Cal Stephanides, born Calliope and raised as a female until puberty hits (or rather, fails to hit as expected). Eugenides introduces us to three generations of Cal’s Greek-American family, tracing the lives of a people who carry a recessive biological anomaly which ultimately finds the light of day in Cal. Though this novel seems daunting (coming in at 529 pages), the sheer volume of life events covered in Middlesex keeps readers engaged throughout. Immigration, entrepreneurial endeavors, silkworms, incest, puberty, suburbia, white flight, genetics, and prohibition are just a sampling of the varied forces at work in Eugenides’ hefty volume. In taking a look back at the sum total of forces shaping Cal’s forebears, readers are able to more fully his life as lived, first under the guise of femininity and ultimately as a male.
Eugenides warms his readers up for the story of his protagonist’s remarkable biology by taking us back two generations to Mount Olympus where Cal’s grandparents Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides were raised. It’s almost as though Eugenides is testing the waters – if his readers can sit with the incestuous relationship between the earliest Stephanides, then they will surely welcome the Stephanides’ hermaphroditic grandchild into their hearts. And that is the beauty of this work – Eugenides’ characters are the types of people that most members of modern day society would deem freaks. Many of them engage in behavior that is entirely unfathomable to most upstanding citizens, if not considered downright disgusting. But he renders these individuals so endearing and tells their story in such an earnest way that we as readers are forced to suspend judgment. Three generations of the Eugenides family easily find their way into readers’ hearts in spite of their socially unacceptable flaws.
Middlesex isn’t necessarily a testament to transgender rights nor is it a meditation on the science of hermaphrodites. Though Cal’s sex and gender frame the story, they truly only figure into the last hundred or so pages. At its heart, Middlesex is the well-told tale of an immigrant family as experienced by one of the most misunderstood members of its youngest generation. It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of fiction that I’ve relished twice already in my life and anticipate rereading for years to come.