Book review: Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

originally posted elsewhere: October 4, 2004

tl;dr: Yin and yang, sun and moon, Mars and Venus, together...

Jeffrey Eugenides accomplishes many feats in Middlesex, the most significant being that he manages to be completely convincing writing in the first person as a hermaphrodite. But Middlesex is not at all a freak show. Eugenides skillfully uses the narrator's hermaphrodite condition to craft a unique story of the assimilation of 20th century immigrants to America. Eugenides' ultimate aim is to show the degree to which society impacts the individual, and he succeeds admirably. You don't at all have to be a hermaphrodite or a Greco-American to identify with the lessons in Middlesex.

The author Cal/Calliope's condition is caused by a single mutant gene, but because of society's gender norms and the influence of family members, friends, strangers, educators, and the medical profession, the impact of that one mutant gene is immense (literally, life and death), far exceeding the actual physical impact on Cal/Calliope's body. Middlesex is a plea for tolerance and acceptance, and Eugenides proves his case by illustrating what happens when those ideals are violated. Even for those characters that are not hermaphrodites (such as Cal's brother, who gets caught up in the sixties anti-war counterculture), society also plays a heavy role in determining one's actions and fates. Any self-aware reader who possesses at least one "outside the norm" condition (and who among us does not?) will identify on that abstract level with Cal.

A book cover, with the title and author's name, consisting of a black-and-white image of a ship in deep water, with two smokestacks emitting smoke, with two women in the lower left, one of whom is smoking with the smoke rising to mingle with the surface of the water, and with some tall city buildings in the lower right, which are emitting smoke that also rises to the water's surface

Eugenides, writing as Cal/Calliope, manages to give proper voice to both his male and female sides. The supporting characters in Middlesex are a very interesting, memorable collection of personalities. The book is a fairly quick read, and the ending is especially fast paced and gripping. So, what is the flaw that prevents me from giving Middlesex a five star rating? Simply this: the first half of the book, up to the moment of Cal's birth, is not nearly as absorbing or consequential as the second half, which focuses on Cal's life and gradual discovery of his/her gender and preferences, which precipitates the book's main themes. Eugenides intends the first half to be more than just the set-up for Cal's story, but I feel if he had restricted himself to simply that purpose, he would have created a shorter but even more powerful, moving story.

All in all, I do recommend Middlesex, but even though it won the Pulitzer, I don't think it is going to go down in literary history as a classic.