Published in 2002, almost a decade after the success of The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Middlesex, tells more than just the story of Calliope/Cal Stephanides; it tells the story of Cal’s grandparents and parents as well. With small flashes of Cal’s life, the novel primarily moves from the Greek/Turkish conflicts of World War I through emigration to America, through the Great Depression and World War II before finally focusing on the unusual genetic situation and the way it impacted Cal’s adolescence and adult life.
Delving into issues of minority and immigrant cultures in America during the first half of the twentieth century as well as gender and sexuality, Middlesex covers a lot of ground. It is not an easy novel to get through. Descriptions are rich but can be a bit much at times. There is also a lot of repetition. The mutated gene that causes Cal’s condition creeps into passages where the subject isn’t expected or welcome. It forces the reader’s attention back to Cal and disrupts the novel’s flow. Most of the time, I had no problem with Cal as a narrator, but those little deviations came across as self-serving and egotistical (understandable when the narrator’s struggles are a key piece of the novel but annoying all the same).
The biggest piece of criticism I can see Middlesex generating is its length. I can see how the histories of Cal’s grandparents and parents can feel superfluous, especially when the focus reverts to Cal and many of these ancestral characters fall away from the narrative almost entirely. However, if the novel is viewed, not as Cal centric, but in three pieces, it is less bothersome. Three different generations and three different sets of experiences are presented in Middlesex, each compelling on its own. It is only when the narrative creates and emphasizes the overlap that it becomes cumbersome and exhausting.
Though sexuality and social taboos jump to the forefront of the book, my favorite aspects dealt more with the question of culture and acceptance in the rapidly urbanized and then suburbanized America. The process of assimilation, the persistence of superstition, and the Americanization of this immigrant family is a fascinating story to watch unfold.
Perhaps my favorite characters are those of the grandparents’ generation: Desdemona with her predictive spoon and love of soap operas; Sourmelina and her arranged marriage of mutual convenience; the ancient Dr. Philobosian who seems doomed to the outskirts of the narrative but proves so influential in the mistake he made.
Middlesex has too much going on for readers to give up on it, but the way it is presented is difficult to digest. The best advice I can give is to take it slow. I had to alternate reading chapters from Middlesex with something lighter to keep myself from getting bogged down in it. Despite the subject matter, The Virgin Suicides is the easier novel to read, but Middlesex has a slightly greater depth and richness that is worth the extra effort required to actually get through it.