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Book review: <i>Middlesex</i> by Jeffrey Eugenides

For me, Middlesex is one of those rare and wondrous stories which is so richly created and so complex that I would be afraid to try and sum it up because I would invariably miss out something important. It is historical, mythological, generational, deeply personal, and extremely thought provoking. It is also fabulously well written.

The story

This is the story of three generations of the Stephanides family. Of an inherited gene. Of a migration from Asia Minor to America. Of love. Of secrets. Of sexuality. The narrator is Cal Stephanides, previously Calliope, who follows the shameful secret of the marriage of his grandparents, the relationship between his parents and their lives together, to his birth as Calliope and his personal journey through the sexuality of Calliope into that of Cal. So many mythologies are tied into this history; silk worms, religion, divination, incest, genealogy, sexual theory. For Cal, he is the sum of his and so many other parts.

The style

I admire Jeffrey Eugenides enormously for what he has achieved in this novel. Cal’s humanity transcends sexuality, and the narrator is so raw and exposed as a character, and so honest, that the reading experience is really quite grueling and emotional. The story has cyclic elements; there is a roundabout style to the narration where many elements from different time periods are pulled into the story and the adult Cal makes several appearances. I have never encountered a male author who is so comfortable and able in what is traditionally a female writing method, so Eugenides gets snaps for that too.

I think that the most impressive aspect of Middlesex (which, while describing the hermaphroditic nature of Calliope/Cal, is also the name of the house where s/he spends his/her formative years) is the way the theme of sexuality is dealt with. I can’t say I’ve ever met a hermaphrodite, but if I were to think about hermaphrodites in general I would probably only consider the physical aspects of hermaphroditism. However, what about the other aspects? WHO is this hermaphrodite? With what do they identify? What does gender mean? How is gender acted? This was one of the most humanising stories about sexuality I have ever read; makes no judgments, no decisions, just is what it is in the face of all scientific and mythological evidence... just like Cal.

Who is this book for?

If you have any interest in theories about sexuality, this is the book for you. Furthermore, it is a humbling reading experience... like walking several miles in the shoes of somebody completely alien to most other people. It’s fairly heavy going, as you can imagine, and there were a couple of bits where I lost my place and read the same page five times before I moved on, but it is good, solid, excellently and compassionately written stuff.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of The Virgin Suicides, which was also an excellently written book. Otherwise, I really can’t compare Middlesex to anything else, it really seems in a league of its own.

In short

Title: Middlesex
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 0312422156
Year published: 2002
Pages: 529
Genre(s): Contemporary literature

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