Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Tessa: Okay so I’ve been reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides for going on three months now. No, it’s not a seven book series with a combined page count of 15,966 pages. It’s 596 pages with a respectable font size. And really how can an epic coming of age story of a hermaphrodite growing up in the sixties in Detroit to American Greek parents be dull? The very idea of sexual ambiguity to me is fascinating. But am I the only one who thinks that this reads more like three separate books?

Although I found each story fascinating, the book as a whole doesn’t completely work for me. The first part which takes place in Smyrna, Turkey details the love affair and harrowing escape of Calliope’s (our ambiguously sexed hero/ine) grandparents. Their flight from their small village, the burning of Smyrna and its devastation, their love affair en route to the New World, could have worked as a small novella in itself. How Eugenides carefully pulls you into the re-invention of Calliope’s grandparents from brother and sister to husband and wife as they make the journey to their new lives, is beautifully seductive and wonderfully rendered. So much so that I forgot all about Calliope who only makes brief appearances as the third person narrator piecing together her genetic history.

Now comes part two of the book…and again it’s remarkable for its evocation of Detroit in the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s from the perspective of immigrant families making their lives in America. The shock of acclimatization, Lefty’s speakeasy, rum running, Detroit riots and families bonding together through language and common experience, give you a keen sense of how cultural enclaves are created. Although Calliope appears intermittently, as a man living in Berlin, she is woven very peripherally into the immediate tale. We understand her genetic history: her parents are cousins and her grandparents are brothers and sisters but there is still no sense of who she is, only where she comes from. It’s only in the third part of the book that Calliope really appears. As a teenager she is cognizant of the fact that she is not who she thinks she is. Her stuffed training bra can no longer disguise the long sinewy body of a young man and the thing she longs for above all else, breasts and menses, never make the hoped for appearance.

This last part of the book is really interesting because you’re dealing with a character whose slow painful reckoning of her utter differentness is set against a backdrop of middle class America before gay rights (much less transgender/transexual rights) had any public currency. There is no way she is going to fit in. Anywhere. And slowly you realize the enormity of her situation. Being different is never fun. Being a sexually ambiguous teenager is a nightmare. And even though Calli chooses to live her life out as a man which is her dominant sex, he still traverses that line somewhere between being a man and not quite being a man because of the partially formed ‘crocus like’ protuberance that is his penis. He is and he isn’t.

I guess the question is, would I read this book again? Truthfully I’m not sure. There were parts of it that I thought were really amazing and other parts I found myself skipping through. I know this book did well and was critically well received but for me it didn’t really hang together as well as I thought it could have.

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