Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Callie begins her story with a statement. I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
But really, Callie’s story began way before 1960, back in 1922 when two siblings, Lefty and Desdemona, are forced to leave ravaged and burning Smyrna and, amongst the chaos and destruction, board a ship to Detroit. America allowed Lefty and Desdemona to have a new beginning and left Callie with an extraordinary heritage and a story that promises to capture you from the first page.
In 2003, Middlesex was announced the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, automatically placing it on my radar for books I must get my hands on. Once again, the Pulitzer Prize hasn’t let me down. With one of the most brilliant and extraordinary narrators I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading a story from since Donna Tartt’s Theo from The Goldfinch, this novel is a celebration of exquisite story telling. Callie begins her story by taking us back three months before her birth, on a Sunday night after dinner, when her grandmother Desdemona Stephanides asks for the box with the silver spoon. On that night, Desdemona announces that Tessie Stephanides, Callie’s mom, is having a boy. Three months later, Callie is born and the silver spoon prediction is soon completely forgotten.
Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.
Jeffrey Eugenides gives Callie incredible insight into the minds of her family offering her everything she needs to deliver a story from multiple perspectives spanning over 80 years, from 1922 to the turn of the century. Desdemona and Lefty had a beautiful life in Smyrna, but their lives were turned upside down on the eve of the catastrophe in the face of the Great Fire of Smyrna. They are brutally forced to leave their home behind and flee to Detroit bringing with them a great and shameful secret. Desdemona and Lefty had fallen in love. Knowing that their sexual attraction to each other is condemned by society – and biology – Desdemona and Lefty board the ship as “strangers” and start a brief courtship deceiving the passengers into thinking that they only just met. It is how they arrive to America where their cousin, Sourmelina, offers them a home.
One of the most wonderful parts of Middlesex where the granddaughter narrates the story of the grandparents, is that it gives the reader the opportunity to think of their own grandparents, these two people who might seem so distant, old and forgotten, as people in their youth. My own grandmother’s family came from Smyrna to Athens and I have often dismissed my grandmother’s random musings of her family’s journey to Greece. Watching Lefty and Desdemona and their own journey to Detroit since they were just out of adolescence really gave me pause to think of my own grandparents and how they too used to have a life, jobs, love and adventures.
Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.
Slowly we move forward in time, as Desdemona and Lefty get older and have a son, Callie’s father, and a daughter. The story takes another turn, as we follow Milton who falls in love with Callie’s mom and eventually bring Chapter Eleven into the world. Some years later, following her brother’s birth, Callie takes her first breath. Now, imagine all this story of this Greek-American epic told into a narrative style that closely resembles a musical. If I had to describe the feeling this novel gave me, I would say it reminded me a lot of the movie “Big Fish”. It’s humorous and playful, with good moments and bad, being real life and at the same time a parody. The characters move about as in a song, exaggerating their movements and words but also coming back to reality once the part is over. All this in the hands of a narrator who is not afraid to be emotional and raw. The story of Lefty and Desdemona, Milton and Tessie and later that of Callie herself will immediately feel personal and relatable. It’s an intimate account of the family’s story and it’s simply beautiful.
I was thinking how amazing it was that the world contained so many lives. Out in these streets people were embroiled in a thousand different matters, money problems, love problems, school problems. People were falling in love, getting married, going to drug rehab, learning how to ice-skate, getting bifocals, studying for exams, trying on clothes, getting their hair-cut and getting born. And in some houses people were getting old and sick and were dying, leaving others to grieve. It was happening all the time, unnoticed, and it was the thing that really mattered.
A remarkably pleasant surprise was how frankly and relatively in-depth Eugenides discusses being intersex. As we follow Callie through puberty, we experience along with her feelings of frustration in growing up to be different from the other girls. Eugenides even includes the physician’s report on Callie’s sex on a realistic representation of not only physicians’ biases but also the protocol followed in the 70’s when an individual was born intersex. It is interesting to note that today’s reports, at least the psychological ones, are written with the knowledge that the patient is always able to request it and read it. It is also thought-provoking to ponder on the binary view of genders and how 40-50 years ago gender roles were perceived, even from supposedly forward thinkers.
Can you see me? All of me? Probably not. No one ever really has.
More than halfway through the novel, I had decided to give a 5 star rating. Somewhere in the last 100 pages though, Eugenides writing took a sudden turn to bad. Whereas the whole novel is carefully paced, not rushed but not too slow either, and the protagonists are given an in-depth analysis of character and decision-making, the final portion of the story was completely different. Suddenly, Eugenides gives Callie a rushed voice and starts skipping parts or passing over them as if jumping over hot coals. The last part, the part that the whole book has been leading up to, feels like someone asked Eugenides to hurry up and finish the damn thing. In some parts I can understand why Eugenides would move faster, would turn Callie into someone we don’t really know anymore. But this transition in pace and level of intimacy between reader and narrator lacked in finesse and in the end the result felt not true to the core of the book, doing it a saddening injustice.
Everyone struggles against despair, but it always wins in the end. It has to. It’s the thing that lets us say goodbye.
Middlesex was an incredible reading experience that gave me a strong push, like Aeolus’ winds in my back, to keep on with my Pulitzer Prize winners pursuit. I strongly urge anyone who enjoys literary fiction to allow Callie to sit down with you and tell you her story.
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