Middlesex: A Novel by Jeffrey Eugenides (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. 544 pp)
Born in Detroit, Michigan on March 8, 1960, Jeffrey Eugenides is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer. As an undergraduate, he attended Brown University and later earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University. Eugenides received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Fellowship for a short story he wrote in 1986. In 2002, his novel, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. Eugenides works on faculty at Princeton University’s Program in Creative writing and lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter.
Drawn to the Outsider
Are you drawn to the outsider? Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about rooting for the underdog. I feel connected to a certain extent with those in the margins. Of course, I need to mention caveats of ethnicity and gender—yes, I am a white male so I’m not really disenfranchised. Yes, my feelings toward those on the outside might be some form of white, middle-class guilt.
Recognizing these criticisms but ultimately setting them aside, there is a soft spot for the picked-upon middle schooler, the passed-over middle manager, or the person selected last in the pick-up basketball game.
In my estimation, this feeling represents the foundational reason behind my affinity for Jeffrey Eugenides’ award winning book, Middlesex.
The book’s central character is an outsider—anatomically and socially—yet Eugenedies masterfully weaves a narrative that is remarkably human. So much so, the narrative forces the reader to rethink what is normal and what isn’t.
The story’s narrator and protagonist is Calliope (Cal) Stephanides a 5-alpha-reductase-deficiency-syndrome afflicted male, raised throughout his youth as a female.
“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” (3).
Right from the start of the story, Eugenides introduces his dichotomy—a character both male and female, someone with needs and wants similar to everyone else in the world.
The Family Tree
But before he dives into the drama of Cal’s life, Eugenides traces the Stephanides family history. In fact, a large portion of Middlesex details family origins—from Cal’s grandparents’ unlikely escape from Smyrna to the one-again-off-again World War II romance of Cal’s parents, readers understand Cal because they have spent time with his/her relations. Relationships Eugenides largely contends to be of unusual sorts.
“In my family, the funeral meats have always furnished the wedding tables. My grandmother agreed to marry my grandfather because she never thought she’d live to see the wedding. And my grandmother blessed my parents’ marriage, after vigorously plotting against it, only because she didn’t think Milton would survive to the end of the week” (195).
Interestingly, even when the story moves to Cal, Eugenides forces the reader to wait patiently for the unveiling. But like any narrative climax, the wait is worth it considering Eugenides talented epigrams:
“Chekov was right. If there’s a gun on the wall, it’s got to go off. In real life, however, you never know where the gun is hanging. The fun my father kept under his pillow never fired a shot. The rifle over the Object’s mantel never did either. But in the emergency room things were different. There was no smoke, no gunpowder smell, absolutely no sound at all. Only the way the doctor and nurse reacted made it clear that my body had lived up to the narrative requirements” (396).
Middlesex is the story of a life. If you are expecting a fast-paced thriller, this book will not do. But this book carries extensive weight. The thin line between unusual and normal is one we all tread. Eugenides notes,
“Normality wasn’t normal. It couldn’t be. If normality were normal, everybody would leave it alone. They could sit back and let normality manifest itself” (446).
Most anatomy indicates male or female, but that says nothing about normalcy. We all have unique characteristics that make us human and relational beings. Middlesex serves as a reminder that there are characteristics that unite us all, and characteristics that separately define us much like the variations of a snowflake.
If you are interested in character and the things that make us human, give Middlesex a read.
Verdict: 4 out of 5