Middlesex – Book Review
Middlesex is a fiction Pulitzer Prize winner written by Jeffrey Eugenides, also the author of his first book, Virgin Suicides, which later became a Sofia Coppola movie. The main character Calliope, who is also the narrator, was born and raised as a girl with too much boy hormones and a little something extra between the legs. This all thanks to a well kept juicy secret between her grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty. But this is not just a story of a girl coming of age, in search of her own identity. It is like a tragic Greek tale of misfortune and adventure. This is an account of the Stephanide’s lineage and their screwed up history that eventually comes full circle. A girl at the age of fourteen who discovers love and lust in all the unlikely ways. A girl who has to deal with fancy doctors who attempt to solve her identity problem. Her genetic problem. Her secret problem. A problem her parents are too ignorant to see, cos they’ve in fact never seen it.
The story is written chronologically. From the history of her grandparents forsaken sibling love. A love story that was helpless and hopeless but not at all unromantic. Jeffrey writes this taboo topic of incest in such a sensitive way that it can be reckoned with. Their situation and setting is understandable yet all the more disturbing because of this. I had to question my ethics, probe at the center of my beliefs and ultimately decide, that it was still gross. Their inbreeding inevitably leads to the genetic miscoding of Calliope, but this revelation, as it skips a generation, is held in suspense. The author makes you wait for Callie’s birth as he convinces the reader that it’s crucial to know the details of the others before her.
During the few months I spent with this book, which I would’ve read quicker if it weren’t for my Europe tour, I got a good sense of what it would be like to be a part of this family. There are beautiful and comical stories of their relationships with one another. The author is very sensitive in revealing the dynamics between relationships. Between parent and child, how distant a child can feel to their own parents, in the midst of their own chaos. Chapter Eleven and Callie, the almost non-existent relationship between a brother and sister which later comes into fruition like a silent movie. And even the small relationships revealed, for instance, between Milton (the father) and his black neighbor Morrison. I understood the complicated tension within that small exchange during the race riot. The common interest in saving their business, mutual respect for one another yet the frustrations built by stereotype and all the hatred surrounding them. This can only come from a writer who understands the variety of human connections.
There is this great backdrop of Detroit city within the story. The great “Mobile City” due the rise of auto factories in the early 1900’s to the end of the 70’s. Then the slow and deep decline of the city. The race riot and the neglect to recover. The foreclosures and abandoned homes. I was seamlessly moved through this period through the telling of the family’s restaurant, the Zebra Room diner. Which was originally a basement bar brought to life by Lefty, the grandfather. I found it interesting that the Zebra Room parallels the life of Lefty, from its creation inside their very (womb) home to their relocation out into a world from which it knew little of. With the death of the diner, Lefty will also fall to a silent illness that will keep his secret buried just a little bit longer.
Towards the end of the book, Callie decides to choose a side. A side I feel she didn’t think she had to choose. A side she felt she already belonged to but didn’t know that she had to make the change. So she makes the necessary changes to fit in. To adjust. To be accepted. And I found this a little sad because she was perfectly happy with the way she looked, it seemed. She adjusts the way she walks, talks, carries her shoulders. The things she keep in her luggage, her jacket pocket. The length of her hair. I wondered why she had to transform herself to fit in. Why she had to change her name to Cal, when in fact she still felt like the daughter Tessy always had. It leads me to a conviction that it is the rest of the world who has to change more. A lot more. I can go on with this idea, but I don’t want to digress. The story ends with the beginning, Desdemona. There you have it, the full circle. Desdemona lives to reveal the secret, because the story must go on living.
It may seem like I spoiled it for you, but there’s so much more that I haven’t shared. I haven’t said anything about a betrayal, a love triangle, a cult, or a tragic car chase. You must read it to find out.
When it comes down to it, this story is about acceptance. Even if this strange and mysterious world cannot accept the unfamiliar, the unknown. Sometimes family is the only place.