Well, I had to renew it from the library three times, but I’ve finally finished reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. The novel won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003 and I definitely understand why now. It is amazingly well-crafted and original and features an unforgettable protagonist. I even found myself marvelling at individual sentences at times.
The novel is told from the point of view of middle-aged Calliope Stephanides retelling the history of her family from Asia Minor all the way to Detroit, Michigan, where her own personal history begins and she takes the reader all the way up through her adolescence. The history of her ancestors is imperative to her own story because a dark secret has been covered up and has manifested itself in her own genes: Callie was born a girl, but due to a mutated gene, her body becomes that of a male’s as soon as she hits puberty. She has both male and female genitalia. By the way, before you fly into a rage, this isn’t a spoiler because it’s revealed in the first few sentences of the novel. It is quite shocking at first. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to relate to a narrator who’s a hermaphrodite, but this story is so incredible, moving, and epic and Callie is a strong, funny, inquisitive and brave protagonist.
That’s the amazing thing about fiction and about being inside the head of a character completely different from you. It really expands your mind and enables readers to have empathy for people that they most likely would not be able to empathize with in the ‘real world’.
Eugenides also does a remarkable job of contrasting the Old World ways and customs with those of American life. We see how quickly the next
generation becomes Americanized and loses touch with the roots of their parents, how quickly they forget. A physical environment has so much influence over who a person becomes, which also factors into Callie’s gender identity. Her environment has molded her to be female, but eventually the biological self starts to mutiny against that conditioning, and she is thrust into foreign territory, much as her grandparents felt when they arrived in the United States. A person becomes conditioned to one place or one set of circumstances, but chance thrusts them into another.
This novel is a grand achievement, with the makings to become a classic. Although Calliope has been compared to the likes of Holden Caulfield, among others, she/he is unlike any other protagonist that came before.