One Sentence Summary: Middlesex is both a sprawling immigrant family epic and an intensely personal story about one person trying to find their identity among challenging circumstances.
One Sentence Review: Eugenides book is exactly the sort of educational and historical fiction that I love to read, so I was definitely wasn’t disappointed in this book.
Long Review: For whatever reason, I have always had these weird misconceptions about this book. I’d often think of it as Middlemarch, which is not this book but in fact a novel by George Eliot published in the 1870s. I also thought Middlesex was more of a sci-fi book looking at gender, something akin to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness in part about a society in where there is (basically) no set gender.
So in my head, I’d always think, “Man, I really want to read Middlemarch, you know, that Pulitzer Prize-winning sci-fi book about sex and stuff.” I’m glad I never said this to anyone in real life, although now I’m admitting it on the blog which is almost as ridiculous. But anyway…
Suffice it to say, Middlesex is not either one of these things, and in fact I liked it much better than I thought because of that. That’s not to say that I didn’t like The Left Hand of Darkness (because I did), or that I don’t think I’d like Middlemarch (because I think I would), just that Middlesex was exactly the sort of immigrant family epic story that book I’ve been reading and enjoying lately.
The story starts out with 41-year-old Cal Stephanides telling the story of the genetic mutation that caused him to be raised a female throughout childhood even though he later identified as male. Middlesex follows the story of Cal’s (formerly “Callie’s”) family traveling from a small village in Greece to Detriot during the 1920s, then out to affluent suburbs in Michigan. In some ways, Callie’ story is that of a “typical” immigrant family (if you can even say that), but in other ways quite different.
One of the best qualities of this book is the way Eugenides skillfully weaves together history and fiction. Certainly, the specific story of the Stephanides family is fictional, but the context in which they live (wars in Greece, coming to the United States, then moving on up in Detroit society) was very real. I got done with the book and felt like I’d learned something about the history and experience of living in the United States at this time, and I always love that. The history was part of the story, rather than just a narrative device use to situate a fictional tale.
I also admired Eugenides’ writing style and ability to balance voice. The story shifts between present day Cal and young Callie, two voices distinct in age and gender. I’m not sure how to describe this or even how to give a passage as an example, but throughout I felt like the voice of the story really fit this confusing mishmash of people, space, and time.
Overall, the story of Callie turning into Cal and dealing with finding gender and identity was written sensitively and thoughtfully. I never felt like the author (or narrator) was sugar-coating the experience, but I didn’t think it was melodramatic either. There could have been temptation to sensationalize, but it’s to the credit of the story that it doesn’t.
This book is older and so famous that I’m not really sure what else I can add to what’s already been written. I throughly enjoyed this book both for the writing and the story, and felt as if I learned something along the way. I’m currently monkeying around with a post about fiction that teaches as it storytells, and I think this book is a great example.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!