There’s no way to write a review of Jeffrey Eugenides’ masterpiece Middlesex in one go. The novel itself is too expansive, both in scope and in length, in theme and in plot. It’s a massive family history in the vein of One Hundred Years of Solitude and to do it justice is to divide it into multiple, digestible portions.
Or, perhaps I’m just biased — it is one of my favorite novels. (The title for this blog comes from the novel: “there is a splash from above. . . .he has never seen anything like what he is seeing now. . .he isn’t sure he likes what he sees. . .”)
Middlesex is not an easy novel to get through. the back cover makes it sound more engaging than the first one hundred pages prove to be: it “tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlookig Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of 1967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan.” That’s the back cover. The first sentence speaks to an entirely different story: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
Petoskey — a charming small town in the upper echelon of the lower peninsula of Michigan, famous for patterned stones, of all things.
The basic conceit behind the novel is simple: it is the coming-of-age story of a young hermaphrodite, raised as a girl, but genetically a man. It is a sexual awakening, not only of general pubescent desires, but of a new kind of gender awareness. It is a story about incest, immigration, racism, sexism, secrets and truths — a true American epic, and a timely one. The story is told from the point of view of Cal, who is refreshingly honest about how he is, in his own words, a “genetic freak” before rushing backwards in time, almost dizzyingly, to detail his grandparents history and their story of immigration.
The novel reads in three parts: Part I is the immigration story, the tale of the American dream and the inherent disappointment and failure that accompanies it. Part II moves from Cal’s grandparents to his parents — more on that later. Part III revolves around the coming-of-age of Cal — a refreshingly simple tale, in particular when looking at the complexities of Cal himself.
Part I reads like a family epic — Detroit and Greece merge into a unique melting-pot Macondo, and there is a kind of fantasy to them. The first time that I read the book, I found this section ponderous — after discovering that the narrator is a hermaphrodite, I wanted to get to that point — I did not want to read about his grandparents, a brother and sister who had to flee Greece due to war, and who ended up, ultimately, in Detroit, Michigan. On my (fourth? fifth? I’ve lost track) read I have a greater appreciation for it, and it’s slow development of theme. Each section of the novel focuses on different themes, but two carry throughout: the discovery of one’s identity, and a more unique theme that I can only describe as “two coming into one.”
The identity is easy enough: Cal’s grandfather, Lefty, is a chameleon at self-identity. While in Greece he shifts and grows — he’s a lady’s man and devouted brother, a gambler and a reliable seller of goods. He easily shifts again when they reach America — he is eager to welcome in the new culture. He learns English and works on an assembly line at Ford Motors, he accepts the “melting pot” ideal of American life. His sister, Desdemona, is the exact opposite. She knows precisely who she is, while in Greece: she harvests silkworms, wears her hair in traditional Greek braids, and accepts the patriarchal hierarchy without question. Unlike her brother-husband, when she comes to America, she cannot let that heritage go. She clutches her silkworms all the way to America, and later finds a factory to work at that deals with silk. She agonizes over the moral wrongness of marrying her brother, she cooks and eats traditional Greek food, she struggles with learning English. It is never difficult for her to determine her identity — it is hard, merely, to mesh it with the new world in which she lives.
Detroit’s Central Station — which once rivaled Grand Central in NYC — now lies abandoned and in disrepair.
The third main character of the first third of the book is the city of Detroit. It’s reminiscent of Chicago in The Jungle — a teeming mass of immigrant people, working in factories, toiling for something more than the lives they’ve left behind. It’s different, too, though — Eugenides recalls some of the greatest architectural triumphs that the city has to offer — the train station, the skyscrapers, the old buildings that now lay sadly derelict. The vision of Detroit is also one struggling for identity — though in Part I, that isn’t so clear (at least, not without the hindsight of one who has visited it recently. The city motto is mentioned: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus. We Hope for Better Things: It Shall Rise From The Ashes. An almost prophetic saying, established when Detroit first burned down in the early 19th century, and resurrected through race riots to the modern-day issues of bankruptcy.
The second theme is harder to classify: it is the idea of two things that are separate and do not belong together, merging into one. It is a hermaphodite — neither man, nor woman, but somehow linked together. It is the Greek minotaur, who is half man and half woman, and the mythical chimera which is composed of three different animals. It is the Stephanides, intrinsically Greek but living in America — it is the American Dream, in a way, the immigrants dream: to enter a new world, but to find success among people who are altogether different. It is the city of Detroit, which was founded by fur trappers but became known for motor vehicles — it is the blend of past and present that suffuses the first hundred pages of the novel. It is a brother and sister who should never have married, but stay strong and devoted to one another, and it is the dichotomy between Desdemona and the foil character of her sister, who loves American life and blends in.
(There is, too, the third, obvious theme of sexuality and morality, which also permeates the novel: in part one, it is expressed through the incestual relationship of Lefty and Desdemona, and tangentially through their cousin, Lina, who is a lesbian married to a possibly Turkish man — but that all becomes much more important in Part III.)
Quite possibly the greatest family epic of all time — if you haven’t read this, add it to the list.
Middlesex, like many of the great family epics, is a difficult novel. It’s difficult to sit back and read, and to deal with a meandering plot after the tantalizing hint of something scandalous to come. But just as The Grapes of Wrath, One Hundred Years of Solitude, or the novels of Leon Uris require patience, it is just as worthwhile in the end.
*Stay tuned to a review on Part 2 and Part 3 of the novel!