The genius of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex isn’t in its seamless melding of three generational story strands into a captivating whole. It isn’t in his precise use of language to evoke feelings of poignancy and amusement, often in the same sentence. It isn’t even that Middlesex is the rare novel set in Detroit that captures that city’s danger and sad beauty at the same time.
The genius of Middlesex is that it takes a main character who is something other than “normal” and makes that character achingly, recognizably human. The narrator and protagonist of Middlesex is Cal, a hermaphrodite raised as girl who later finds something resembling happiness as a man. Born Calliope Helen Stephanides
into a Greek-American family, “Callie", as he is first known, seems like a girl to everyone – parents, his half-blind, old-fashioned doctor and even the other kids at school. But as Callie gets older, his voyage into puberty diverges sharply from the other girls he knows, and he begins to suspect, subconsciously at first, that something is different about him.
Those suspicions are confirmed when he develops a powerful attraction to a female classmate, whom he refers to only as the “Obscure Object.” The relationship eventually leads Cal to discover his true identity, and sets him on a whole new path.
That is more or less the book’s plot, but the thing that makes Middlesex special is that, like most life stories, Cal’s doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To explain his present, Cal delves deeply into his past, which includes his incestuous grandparents’ emigration to Detroit from
Turkey, his parents’ troubled love affair, a predictably rebellious brother dubbed “Chapter Eleven,” and the troubled, racially conflicted city of Detroit. Detroit is almost a character in the book – the city’s race riots are memorably depicted, as is Cal’s grandmother’s stint as a silk-worker for a charismatic Nation of Islam leader (who turns out to be a figure from the family’s past).
Cal’s inner struggle is compelling, but so are the troubles of those around him. It’s a wonderful story full of colorful, involving characters, and Eugenides deserves all the accolades he’s gotten if only for his gift of taking characters (hermaphrodites, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities) that society treats as somehow “other” and getting us to see ourselves in them. Identity is something everyone struggles with. Middlesex lets us know that we are not alone.