Impressed by Middlesex

[30 December 2009]

By Lara Killian

Recently I finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ stupendous 2002 novel, Middlesex. The book had been flying on my literary radar at a low level for several years, but until a copy crossed my path in early fall while I looked at someone else’s bookshelves and picked it up to start reading, I hadn’t pursued it. I couldn’t finish the tome in a weekend and picked up another copy serendipitously at the public library a few weeks later. That also came due and had to be returned, so I finally managed to complete my reading using a third copy loaned from the nearest academic collection.

My journey in tracking down copies of the book is nothing compared to the astounding trip the narrator takes. From complicated Calliope to simply Cal, our erudite guide follows the long and winding path of a mutated gene, passed down through genetically too-close couplings and over several generations, to finally manifest in the present as a man who was raised as a girl.

I was reminded frequently of Salman Rushdie’s complex fictions, and that remarkable facility for forcing the reader to question the balance of fate and chance as circumstances force actions that seem initially unlikely, then later inevitable. The threads of fate that run through Eugenides’ work deal with the violence of religious and political upheaval, only to arrive at the traumatic questioning that a young hermaphrodite feels when she is attracted only to her female classmates, and her body fails to physically mature as she expects it will.

The author’s sensitive treatment of taboo family relations, combined with the complicated historical events that unfold around the turn of the 20th century and as America hits its industrial stride, makes for incredible storytelling. The transformational nature of America is echoed in Cal’s burgeoning understanding of the reality of his gender, and the misunderstandings that have conspired to conceal it for so long. A great twist on the often clichéd coming of age story, and worth the trouble to find a copy.

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