Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex tells the story of Cal Stephanides, a 41-year-old man who was raised as a girl. As a teenager, Cal (then known as Calliope) learned of the rare genetic anomaly that caused him to appear to be female despite having a Y chromosome. In Middlesex, Cal traces his genetic heritage, beginning with his grandparents, who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s.
So we have here two stories, an intergenerational immigrant story, complete with cultural misunderstandings and assimilation, and a story of sex and gender and identity. The trouble is, the two flawed, but moderately entertaining stories don’t quite gel into a coherent whole.
The immigrant story, which is the main focus of more than half of the book, doesn’t offer a lot that’s particularly new or original, but I enjoyed much of it anyway. Parts of it, such as the description of the graduation program put on by Cal’s grandfather’s English class, were quite funny. The characters did seem more like types than people, and some of the historical coincidences (such as the identity of Cal’s maternal grandfather) felt too much like attempts at making the book “important.” Still, I was entertained by the story.
The coming-of-age story is very original, but less well executed. This story could have filled a book on its own, but I got the feeling that Eugenides didn’t quite know what to do with the material. At one point, Cal says that he’s still not entirely comfortable as a man, but we only really see this struggle in his efforts at dating, and the discomfort here seems to have more to do with how to explain his situation to the women he dates, not with any existential sexual crisis. It’s complex stuff, and Cal’s thoughts and experiences are intriguing, but this section of the book feels too hurried to be satisfying. Plus, the way Cal switched from first person to third person drove me crazy. I can see how he might be trying to distance himself from his former identity as Calliope, but the switches seemed to occur randomly, and they made the narration feel unpolished.
The two halves of this book do share a common theme of identity and change. What makes a person an American? What makes a person a man? The Stephanides family lives in the middle of two cultures, just as Cal lives in the middle of two genders. But this book never really brings those two ideas together. Maybe it’s not possible to do so successfully; maybe culture and sex are too different for such a parallel to work. But if that’s the case, I would rather see these two narratives in separate books. As it is, they tend to compete with, rather than complement, each other.
Despite its serious flaws, this book is not a bad read. I can’t understand how it managed to win the Pulitzer, but even if I don’t think it deserved such a significant prize, I wouldn’t steer potential readers away from it. I’d just recommend lowered expectations. It’s a good book, not a great book.
Middlesex is my 8th selection for the 1% Well-Read Challenge (2 books to go); my 25th book for the Countdown Challenge (19 to go); my 3rd book for the Read Your Own Books Challenge (27 to go); and my 3rd for the New Author Challenge (22 to go).