Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides reminds me of a gilded mirror with intricate details swirled along the frame. The novel is a mixture of family history, coming of age, and gender identity. The mirror metaphor works, because the narrator, Callie/Cal Stephanides, spends so much time exploring who s/he is. That’s a difficult enough question for most teenagers and adults, but how does that question change when a person’s body seems to mislead them? While the narrator focuses on their identity, the novel suffers at times by diverging into the past and getting lost in details. It’s obvious Eugenides loves language, but it comes at a cost in terms of rhythm and pace.
Some details I loved about the novel were the descriptions and metamorphosis of Detroit. I’m from Michigan and Detroit is a place that inspires both pride and sadness. Pride because of its greatness, because of the auto industry, because of all that Detroit used to mean. Sadness, because of the past tense, because words like used to linger on. To see Detroit described in its height is wonderful. To see how the city languished in the last 40 years is important.
Middlesex spans three generations and is full of rich characters. It navigates around sadness, but perhaps that is part of the immigrant experience. Lefty and Desdemona upon arriving to the United States are completely out-of-place. They can’t speak the language, their clothes stand out, and they’re unsure how to earn money. What must they give up to assimilate? More importantly, what must Cal/Callie give up later on?
Black and white are easy. A light is either on or it’s off. A thought either occurs or it doesn’t. Black and white seem easy, because it’s so limiting. A child is either a boy or a girl. Except when they are not. Same goes with the light, it’s not always just on or off. It could have no power, it could be broken, it could be anything less or more than on and off. Immigration takes this idea a step further. Is a person Greek, Greek-American, or American? Why is a choice even necessary? Depending on the context any label may fit.
So what is Middlesex? It it a novel about gender identity? Is it a mix of fiction and memoir? Is the novel about what it means to be American or an immigrant? Middlesex broadens the lens through which life is viewed. Depending on the reader, the novel may illustrate how life is more nuanced than they previously thought.
Middlesex was published in 2002 and is available through Amazon.