Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides

If you spend much time in bookstores looking at new fiction or bestseller lists, you've probably heard of Middlesex. And even if you haven't, you've probably at least heard the title of Eugenides' first book, The Virgin Suicides (which was made into a movie). But if you're anything like me, the title of the book probably didn't jump out and grab you as an exciting read. I pictured something about, I dunno, England.

Instead, I discovered (and I'm not really giving anything away—this is something you find out pretty much from the first sentence) that Middlesex is about a hermaphrodite (specifically, a 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodite), born and raised as a girl until her teens, when it became clear that she wasn't a normal girl after all. But Middlesex is about a hermaphrodite in the way that Kavalier & Clay is about comic books; that is, it's only an excuse to tell a story about a whole bunch of other things (and to use this clever title).

Calliope/Cal is a strange sort of omniscient narrator, telling of three generations of a Greek family who immigrated to the United States. Like a Greek tragedy, there are romances gone wrong, calamaties, long voyages. The story takes you through several wars, rum-running, the 1967 race riots in Detroit, the beginnings of the Nation of Islam, not necessarily in that order. And, of course, there's the aforementioned discovery of Calliope's indefinite gender.

I know I use the word "fascinating" quite often; you may think that I'm just too easily fascinated. I'd like to think I just avoid boring books. In any case, there's just enough about the phenomenon of gender abnormalities to educate you a little without feeling like you're taking a biology course. Eugenides' writing is often cinematic, as when he "rewinds" back to his grandparents' romance in Bursa, or the wonderful time-lapse description of his grandmother's pregnancy. Another time, things move in slow-motion. It's a little disorienting the way he jumps back and forth in time, but you come to expect it, even if you never quite get used to it.

Finally, there's the matter of Cal's brother's name: Chapter Eleven. If it's not the most bizarre name for a character, it's certainly in the running—but I won't tell you where the name came from.

Give it a try: you might like it.

Fed to jonathan's brain | July 20, 2004