Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Although a synopsis somewhere on a website told me Middlesex was about a hermaphrodite's journey beginning as a girl and then, from age fourteen on, as a male, I found it to be about much more.

The narrator, Cal, is indeed a hermaphrodite, born with ambiguous genitalia, with a vagina and undescended testicles and an elongated clitoris (or short penis) he fondly calls his crocus; however, the gender and sexual issues are not as prominent, in my opinion as the panoramic view of American history throughout the twentieth century. The narrator explains that his story really begins with his Greek grandparents, a brother and sister, who immigrate to America in the early 1920's to Detroit after their village is burned down by the Turks and the British do nothing to help them and the other refugees floundering toward the sea. We follow the incestuous couple through immigration and American assimilation, through the speakeasies and ragtime roaring twenties, through the depression and post-prohibition. We see the birth of his parents, second cousins, who fall in love despite the grandmother's best effort to keep them apart. We witness the impact of WWII, the aftermath, the cold war. We see Detroit rise and fall. At the same time, we catch glimpses of the cinema and music industry, the books and the fashion, and the evolution of the Cadillac. Popular culture abounds through the decades, including the changes in language, religious attitudes, the roles of women, and views on sexual orietnation.

Calliope is born in the sixties and by the time she reaches puberty in the early seventies realizes she is attracted to girls. The narrative oscillates between that transformation in the seventies and Cal's first attempt to reveal himself to a woman with whom he is falling in love in present time. This and Calliope's transformation into Cal comprise a small percentage of the actual narrative.

The novel made me laugh and cry multiple times. I highly recommend it.