Book Review: Middlesex

Middlesex

Eugenides, Jeffrey

2002

Middlesex was a book recommended to me by a friend in the midst of a discussion on  gender roles in different societies. Given the context, I assumed it would be a dry academic study, at best a collection of essays.  Between the title and setting it had been recommended to me in, I assumed it had something to do with gender or sexuality, and those were the areas I went looking in when I moved back to Seattle and once again found myself surrounded by good bookstores.

 

I clearly displayed my ignorance of modern literature.  Eventually I broke down and looked the book up, and I soon found a copy in the literature section. I took it home in the start of a snow shower, which would turn into an event better known in Seattle folklore as Snowmagedden 2.0.  For the next several days the city more or less shutdown, covered by many inches of a pretty, wet, and tenacious snow.  I brewed lots of tea and spent my time watching snow, drinking tea, and reading.  The book won the Pulitzer Prize when it was released, so I needn’t spend more effort on the overall impression than to say that the prize was well deserved – it is a very well crafted book which fully engages the reader and is both familiar and challenging.

 

The basic storyline is a history of 3 generations of a family going backward from the mid 1970’s, but told in generally chronological order. The grandparents were ethnic Greek refugees from Turkey who fled the sacking of Smyrna to his cousin in Detroit, the parents were first generation Americans who grew up in a tightly knit Greek Orthodox  community, and the narrator (and his brother) made up the last years of the Baby Boom. The stories are overly familiar tales of domestic activity in the various places – a pastoral village in the mountains of the Old Country, starting from nothing and working up as immigrants from entry level jobs in the factories to owning a small business; the next generation adapts and adopts the new country and customs as their own, particularly following World War 2, and the next generation deals with the fallout. There are other stories mixed in – courtship, business activities, discrimination and race riots, school integration and white flight, automobiles, religion, …  Tying them all up together, however, is the theme running through the book – the story of the Narrator.

 

It turns out that he was not always who he now, at the time of writing, is.  It started well back in the past, as generations of village lives in Turkey found the selection of prospective marriage partners to be, well, a touch limited.  His grandparents were third cousins. Yet they were also closer… much closer.  As in siblings.  Having kept that secret between themselves, there were no objections on those grounds when their son married their cousin’s daughter.  And of the 2 children of that marriage, one was a perfectly normal boy, the other a perfectly normal girl.  Until she went through puberty, yet didn’t.  An accident led to her being examined in a different medical facility than the family had always used, and the new doctor noticed things were not quite what they seemed. On further investigation, she was determined to be a genetic male but with a hereditary condition which had resulted in essentially appearing as a girl.

 

The last part of the book deals with her / his reaction to learning this information.  It was not smooth.  He decided he was going to live as a male when his parents desired him to have medical intervention to remain as a girl. In the ensuing turmoil he ran away as a 14 year old, eventually ending up in San Francisco working as a peep show freak show attraction. After being arrested during a police raid, he is released to his brother and returns home just in time to attend his father’s funeral, where he takes up the traditional Greek Orthodox role of standing in the open doorway of the house to keep his father’s spirit from entering during the funeral.

 

 

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