I lifted my face and looked into my mother’s eyes. And I told her: “This is the way I was.” (4 stars)
Source- borrowed copy
This edition published May 2003 by Bloomsbury
Paperback edition- 529 pages
This is a pretty tough book to review and it’s an even tougher one to talk about without giving away any potential spoilers about it. It’s a novel that seems to divide opinion as to whether or not it deserves all of the accolades that have came its way. The subject matter and its corresponding themes are complex yet well written; the book itself is a bit of a chunky saga, yet for me, seemed to fly by; the narrator is memorable yet not just because of their original and distinctive voice…
In judging this story fairly, I will say that I truly enjoyed Middlesex for the most part. It was engaging and certainly held my attention, yet there were some aspects about it that bugged me slightly and what I’m still making my mind up about.
Middlesex tells the epic story of three generations of the Stephanides family, omnisciently narrated through the eyes of Cal Stephanides. Cal is now a man living in Berlin, but decades ago was actually born in Detroit as a girl called Calliope. Up until the age of fourteen, Calliope was aware that there was something different about her, but it was not until then that doctors realised she was a hermaphrodite. Reflecting back on not only his own life but that of his parents and grandparent’s lives, Cal then journeys through his childhood and adolescence and to the eventual decisions that led him to this point.
I probably didn’t do this book justice with that rather confusing description, but this novel is about so much more than hemaphrodism. It is a story of bravery, war, family and immigrants reaching for the American dream; it is about love, friendship and how history sometimes has a habit of repeating itself. It is a book about gender identity and relationships. Most importantly, it is a book about finding yourself, no matter how difficult that ultimately may be.
Cal as a narrator is the stand-out best part of this novel, at least for me. Subtly humorous, yet also loquacious and with wry observation skills, Cal is able to stay ‘in the moment’ in his current position as an American-Greek male, and is then swiftly able to journey back to the past to recount the lives of his ancestors. Embedded in this story is a lot of information about Greek mythology and some wonderfully vivid imagery and symbolism about silk worms and new beginnings. There is also a lot of medical detail which is never particularly overdone. Cal’s thoughts about other characters are filled with detail that brings them to life. I also loved his quirky habit of not wanting to elaborate too long on some of the more finite details of the romantic relationships between his mother and father and his continual references to his own brother as ‘Chapter Eleven.’ His name is never divulged and he remains as ‘Chapter Eleven’ for all of the book. Similarly, a girl who Callie has a crush on is known throughout as ‘The Object.’ I loved these small, humorous facets of the story.
At first I must confess that I wondered why the author seemed to dwell for so long on the history of Calliope’s grandparents- the level of attention paid to them seemed to take up a vast chunk of the storyline when I was impatient to get back to finding more about our narrator. Clearly, as the plot progressed, the reasoning behind this became more apparent. Admittedly, I can be a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to things like that…!
There were some brilliant historical moments conveyed throughout this book; I loved the depiction of 1920’s Detroit and also the later descriptions of the bootlegging, prohibition and speak-easies and the way the autonomous automobile era of the city was presented. The burning of Smyrna at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was graphic but remarkably written, as was Detroit during the race riots- Eugenides is an author who certainly isn’t fearful of tackling some gritty subject matters. For those reasons alone, Middlesex is worth a read.
Also worth a read are the eloquent depictions of thoughts and feelings. My heart really broke for Callie/Cal at times- the dawning sense that she wasn’t quite like other girls and her fear and uncertainty as to the nature of her problem was poignant and realistic. Imagining that everything you’ve ever thought about yourself for the last fourteen years is not true and that you aren’t who you thought you were, not to mention how other people may react to that was beautifully conveyed. Cal/Callie was a character so deserving of having someone love them and I wanted this to happen.
That said, I found some of Callie’s/Cal’s decisions didn’t necessarily have a lot of explanation/justification to them. They just sort of happened. This for me was when the book began a bit of a descent downhill. I wanted to know more about why Cal’s eventual choice was made and his decision to abandon his female identity- was it to do with her turning her back on the debate around nature/nurture (as a lot of gravitas was given to in the book), or something else? Also, some characters just disappeared part way through the plot and then reappeared again without any adequate explanation, which is something I find particularly annoying.
Though I found Middlesex to be a thoroughly thought-provoking read, I did think that the ending just sort of ‘petered out’ a bit, so much so that it left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. So much attention and depth had been given to the history of the characters until that point (and which was pretty epically done) that I found myself a bit disappointed by that. The novel was so long too, that I suppose I just expected something a bit… more at its resolution. I’d rather that the story had gone on a bit longer purely to tie up a few loose ends.
Would I recommend Middlesex?
Yes- without hesitation as this is a book than needs to be experienced; just beware that this is a novel that can easily be divided into sections: the first three quarters of the story are unequivocally beautiful and compelling, the last quarter… well, admittedly not so much so.