Hermaphrodites, incest, boot-legging, illegal immigration…this might sound like a Jerry Springer episode but we’re actually talking about the themes in Jeffery Eugenides Pulitzer prize winning novel, Middlesex. In lesser hands, you might expect a story woven around these elements to rely on shock and novelty to grab the reader’s attention. But in Eugenides hands, these are little more than a starting point for an entertaining and provocative work about our search for identity.
Like so many epic novels Middlesex is a multi-generational tale of uprooted immigrants creating a new life in a foreign environment. When Turkish forces invade the Greek countryside in 1922, Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides are forced to flee their simple village life and start over in Detroit, USA. Over the next three generations we learn of the family’s and the city’s intertwined histories, their secrets and their future. Using prisms of ethnicity, race, socio-economic grouping and sexual identity Eugenides takes us on a fascinating tour of a colorful Greek family and the legendary highs and lows of the city of Motown. Throughout the narrative both the characters and the city struggle to resist externally imposed identities and remain true to their heritage in an ever-changing environment.
The protagonist of this tale, Cal, is the granddaughter of Lefty and Desdemona, and just happens to be a hermaphrodite whose condition remains undiscovered until her late teens. You can be forgiven for assuming that this plot element is simply a gimmick. But it’s not. And the reader is hardly even aware of Cal’s unusual biology until the latter stages of the book. Instead, when the story finally reaches Cal’s part in the story, her/his inter-sexed makeup is used as a tool for deconstructing yet another layer of identity: sex/gender. And what could easily become freakish or even tawdry is actually quite tender and illuminating.
Eugenides employs science, biology, humor and unwanted sorrow to handle Cal’s story, deftly balancing these perspectives to create a holistic vision of an unusual life from birth to middle-age and the perpetual search for identity. It’s a grossly compelling vision grounded in the universal need to be accepted -something that is certainly far more difficult for someone whose physiology does not fit within the norms of a biology textbook.
At the heart of Middlesex is an enlarged ensemble of colorful characters that practically jump off the pages and Eugenides has a knack for capturing the immigrant experience and the reverberations felt throughout the first, second and even third generation family members. Throughout this excellent book, the writing is engaging, the pace is crisp and the characters sparkle. Middlesex has all the requisite ingredients for an impossible-to-put-down-page-turner and it does not disappoint.
Eugenides has written just one other book since winning the 2003 Pulitzer, The Marriage Plot (2011), and previously authored The Virgin Suicides (1993); both of which have found commercial and critical success. We look forward to reading these other works and can only hope that we don’t have to wait another decade for his next novel.