It took me a long time to get around to this novel. One reason was that I didn’t want to exhaust the life work of Eugenides too quickly, because no matter how much I love re-reading, and no matter how quickly I forget (meaning that after a few months or years I can read something again almost as I were reading it for the first time), I can only really read something for the first time once, and I wanted to wait for the perfect moment for my first reading of this book.
The other reason for my procrastination was that I looked at this novel somewhat suspiciously. I found its topic and the (literary) opportunities dormant in it intriguing, and generally I would be happy to read even the laundry list of a person who can write such a mesmerizing novel as The Virgin Suicides – still, I had my doubts. One of my several phobias is an inexplicable aversion to family sagas, and this is a saga for sure.
The novel follows the lives and times of an inbred Greek family, and starts off with Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides (who are third cousins and siblings, and also married to each other) leaving for America from Smyrna in 1922, and moving in with a relative. As the years go by, children are born both to them, and to their relative, the lesbian Lina (who has a husband), and the children of the new generation, not being aware of their fragile genetic makeup, follow the century-long tradition of marrying their close relations – to the utmost horror of Desdemona, who – understandably – spends her time worrying when a freak will eventually get born into the family.
The years pass, the first grandchild is born, and after still more years, in 1960, the true main character of the novel is finally born. She’s Calliope Stephanides, a beautiful little girl, who apparently has nothing wrong with her. As Calliope enters puberty, though, she notices more and more weird details on and within herself, until a fateful day reveals that Callie is in fact a boy. (I won’t go into the genetic details – Eugenides does that, and that’s enough.)
The extremely detailed, complicated story is told by the now-adult, 40-something Cal (not Calliope anymore), who’s been living as a man since his teenage years. To give you an idea about the detailed quality of the novel, suffice it to say that a few hundred pages pass before the main character is even born. However, Cal – in the thoroughly enjoyable manner of an ironic-omniscient narrator – knows all there’s to know about his forebears, even things they don’t know about themselves – but when it comes to knowing himself, his knowledge is limited since until the age of 14 he doesn’t know himself for who he is, and even as an adult he constantly struggles with the problem that sometimes he feels like a man, and sometimes like a woman – even if both officially (genetically) and according to his own evaluation he is a man.
The main theme of Middlesex is fantastically interesting. Eugenides examines the eternal questions: what makes a person who he is, and what does our definition of our identity depend on? Is it genetics that defines our identity, is it our upbringing, or something else entirely? And what if there’s a conflict between our genetic identity and the identity that came into being through being brought up one way or another? Can we then freely decide which one to keep? Of course Cal’s case is less than ordinary, consequently, he has a hard time deciding what to call his identity.
I won’t go into details as to why, in the end, he decides at the age of 14, blessed with a man’s genetic makeup and a woman’s identity, that he wants to be a man from that point on – it’s enough to say that the process of choosing (or finding) an identity for himself is deeply human and beautiful – I read with nothing but wonder about the stages of Cal’s journey towards himself. Partly because the journey to the self is always exciting (though of course dangerous), and partly because Eugenides – as usual – writes with such tenderness, poignancy and delicacy that all I can do is sigh and be glad that such beautiful things as his books do exist.
Despite all this, I was a bit disappointed upon first finishing the novel, and I felt as if roughly 500 pages were missing from it. After perusing the elaborately detailed backstory and Cal’s first 14 years of life, I felt as if Eugenides had forgot something: namely, to write about one thing I was extremely interested in: what happened to Cal between the ages of 14 and 41. After a while, though, I realized that of course Eugenides knew what he was doing – because whatever happened to Cal after his decision at the age of 14, that already belonged to his adulthood, and not to the period of defining his identity. And that would be an altogether different story. (A story I’d still be deeply interested to read.)