Remember way back like five or six years ago when you used to go to bookstores? Yeah, it was crazy. Well when I used to go, I’d browse curiously past the “staff recommends” section to see what was up there and whether there were any books that looked interesting.
Middlesex was always there. Always recommended. I’d pick it up. It’d have a cover that declared “this is a thoughtful person’s type of book”. It was tastefully stamped with “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize”. And then I’d read the back cover: Transexual. Incest. Memoir. That’s sort of when I’d look at the cover again, and put it back on the shelf.
I have a former Vox neighbor who is a schoolteacher and loves loves loves books. Over our past interactions, she’d always keep saying, “Read Middlesex.” And I’d keep thinking, “Seriously?”
I am susceptible to influence however (maybe I should give her Klout?), and I came across it – recommended of course – on Audible. So, I downloaded the audiobook and gave it a try.
I can say without doubt that Middlesex is the sweetest story of incest and hermaphroditism that you’re ever going to find. It is an audaciously ambitious book, taking on some pretty topics weighty enough to typically be a book’s sole focus: the immigrant experience, the rise and fall of American Industry, race relations, generational family saga, coming-of-age story, incest, genetics, and nature-versus-nurture to name a few that pop into mind. Jeffrey Eugenides mashes them all together in a tremendously entertaining and surprisingly touching mammoth tome.
Middlesex is presented as a memoir. The narrator is Cal Stephanides a fortyish man at the turn of the last decade. He recounts the story of three generations of his family and traces the course of history (or fate) that cause him to have 5-alpha reductase deficiency (which was fun for me because I’ve worked on endocrinology projects that effect 5-aR activity). Cal is genetically male (XY) but because of the 5-aR deficiency, he presents pre-pubescently, and most importantly is raised, as a female (Calliope).
The writing is plainspoken and occasionally Eugenides gives into groan-inducing turns-of phrase, but generally the books flows well. As a reader, even though I knew it ended with Cal in his 40s, I had no idea of how convoluted the story would get (perhaps there were a couple of tangents that might have been excised. Maybe, I’m not sure).
Anyway, I won’t go into too many of the details – because there are way too many to recount – but for me, the heart of the novel is really about rebirth and second chances. Cal’s grandparents re-invent their lives from scratch after fleeing war-torn Turkey. His father dodges a bullet (literally) by being re-assigned during the Second World War and sets the course of his life. Cal grows from childhood girl to pubescent in-between to grown man and must figure out – as we all do – who we are and what we’re going to do with the life we have.
As an audiobook listener, I have to give exceptional praise to Kristoffer Tabori who did a magnificent job bringing this wildly diverse and rambling story to life.
Four stars out of five.