Size matters

Middlesex
by Jeffrey Eugenides

I had a bit of a struggle with reading this summer and for some reason my response was to only pick out slim little books from the TBR. Why oh why did I forget how absorbing and satisfying a big chunkster is? Like this one, for example.

Eugenides has a new novel out this month, only the third of his career. While Middlesex may not be the biggest book on my shelves, it’s pretty big and I can easily believe that the combination of writing and research might have taken ten years (the gap between this and his first novel). Because this book is epic.

Ostensibly the story of Cal Stephanides, our narrator takes us back through three generations of family history, from Asia Minor to Detroit to Berlin. The heart of the story is summed up in its first line: “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.” So that title’s not about the English county then, just to clarify.

Raised as a girl, Calliope, it is not until her teens – unusually tall, flat-chested and with no sign of getting her period – that she is identified as a hermaphrodite. The journey from beautiful young girl in Detroit to confident but lonely man living in Berlin and telling us his life story is one that has to unravel slowly, because it’s a lot to take in.

This book probably isn’t for the prudish. Cal has been forced to be matter of fact about certain aspects of life, namely sex and genitalia. We hear all about the sex lives of his grandparents and parents, as well as Cal’s own experimental fumblings, because it is all relevant. There’s also a lot of talk about gender identity and body dysmorphia, which I found interesting and well told.

But it’s so much more than that. Cal’s grandparents are forced to flee their home in Greece when it is occupied by Turkey. They arrive at a cousin’s house in Detroit and do their best to assimilate. We follow the family through world wars and race riots, through the rise and fall of the American car industry, through Watergate and through hippy love and drugs. But we also follow the minutiae of an immigrant family, their daily ups and downs, their changing fortunes as they are alternately accepted and rejected by their adopted city.

It is a tremendous work. Eugenides has done his homework, but the only place that stands out is regarding hermaphroditism, which Cal is also learning about. The language is beautiful, educated but warm. The people are real and engaging – no-one is wholly good or bad. I thoroughly enjoyed the week I spent absorbed in this book and will try to stop being afraid of picking up a bigger book from the shelf.

First published in Great Britain in 2002 by Bloomsbury Publishing.
Winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

See also: review by Ingrid on The Blue Bookcase.

I may have written far too much this time

Becoming Drusilla
by Richard Beard

This isn’t an easy review to write. For a start, the book is about a friend of a friend, fellow blogger Dru Marland. If my friend likes her, then I’m predisposed to like her too. Which means I didn’t approach this book neutrally. But then when do we ever? Aren’t we always biased or conditioned in some way that we probably don’t even realise? That’s the kind of question this book asks a lot. It’s very well written but a little tiring.

What started out as a biography, written by Dru’s good friend Richard, turned more into Richard’s story of his own attempts to understand Dru. Or, more specifically, Dru’s decision to become a woman.

Dru was born male and transitioned to female in her 40s. She and Richard had been friends for many years, sometimes going off on camping and walking holidays together, and the announcement that she was going to start living as a woman came as a shock to him. They remained friends through the years of Real Life Experience, hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery, not to mention divorce, family rejection, workplace troubles, cruel newspaper articles and public taunts and stares.

A couple of years after the surgery, they went on a fortnight’s walking holiday, their first since Dru became Dru. The book is structured around that holiday, using their journey across Wales as a metaphor both for Dru’s transition and for Richard’s understanding. Which is a little cheesy, and also initially confusing because it means that there are three timelines – the holiday (2 weeks), the transition (7 years), Dru’s life (49 years at the time of writing, I think). There were also frequent breaks from the story for facts – statistics; details of how gender reassignment works on the NHS, privately and in some other countries; quotes from autobiographies and biographies of other transsexual women; and other research that he has done, which there’s a lot of. A lot of this was absorbing but I’ll admit that I found the quotes superfluous. I get that this background reading was an important part of Richard’s attempt to understand, but I didn’t find a quote about someone going through gender reassignment in the 1970s all that relevant. Not only was the world very different then, but it’s also not Dru’s story. And Dru’s story is a fascinating one, even without including the sex change.

This book is a thorough examination of its subject and it’s sensitively done. Obviously, Dru’s his friend. Their friendship is very sweet and engaging. And yet Richard doesn’t shy away from asking difficult questions. In fact he’s far braver than most people would be, I suspect. He not only probes into every aspect of Dru’s transition, he also probes himself for his own feelings about the whole thing and he’s startlingly honest. For every potential insult of Dru (is she deluded? mentally unbalanced? too masculine-looking to pass as a woman?) there’s an equally negative question aimed at himself (am I scared to be seen with her in public? because I think it’s obvious that she has changed gender and people will judge me for being with her? because I think she’s not an attractive enough woman to appease my masculinity? because I’m irritated by her not trying hard enough to be feminine, even if it has been a long arduous day of walking in the rain?).

Richard asks more general questions as well – how much of gender identification is down to social conditioning? how much influence do the parents have? is sexual orientation a factor? Some of which can’t be answered. And there are questions that Dru can’t or won’t answer. So while we discover Dru’s full biography and almost none of Richard’s, we come away having got to know Richard just as well, if not better.

All those probing questions forced me to ask some difficult questions of myself. Did I want to read this book just because it’s about sex change? Why is that of particular interest? Is it because it’s something I haven’t experienced and I want to know about all things human? That would be acceptable. Or does it have a particular draw for some darker reason? A voyeuristic preoccupation with men dressing as women, like in all those TV shows (transvesticism does seem to have a certain place in British humour), perhaps. Did I want to read it because it’s about Dru, who I have come across in a few places on the internet and found engaging?

I’d like to think that I am completely accepting of transsexual people, that I agree with the medical view that gender dysmorphia is a real condition and that the best cure is to “give them what they want”, as Richard puts it. And from a distance that’s absolutely true. I also think it’s very brave to go through something that’s so alien to other people, that requires constant explanation and effort, for the rest of your life, that’s physically difficult and painful, though those involved clearly feel that the alternative is worse. But up close, do I stare? Do I comment to my companions that I think that woman over there might not be “real”? Or if someone else points that out to me, do I eagerly watch for the clues that they saw before me? I honestly hope not, and if I ever do, I am deeply ashamed of it, but can it be helped? Aren’t we all conditioned to try to fit in and reject what doesn’t seem to conform?

One thing that really hit me about this book probably says a lot about me and my confusion on this topic. Richard casually mentions that the name most commonly chosen by transsexual women in the UK is Kate. By quite some way, apparently. Which caught my attention for obvious reasons. On one level I find that very interesting and am curious why it’s top of the list. Is it for any of the same reasons that my parents chose it for me? Not so much the “short and simple enough for my then-toddler sister to pronounce without difficulty” but more the unambiguously female, familiar and popular, timeless. Or is it for reasons that my parents probably didn’t consider? It’s definitely a girl’s name but it’s not soft and feminine. There are many famous examples, maybe including people who some transsexual women admire or aspire to. On another level I definitely experienced a moment of annoyance. Why must they choose my name? Which is significantly less accepting than I thought I was. I can justify myself a little bit by pointing out that I have always been annoyed by how common my name is, but that’s not much of an excuse.

I found this book engrossing, I greatly enjoyed it, but I didn’t tear through it and did sometimes put it down for days at a time because Richard’s self-examination can’t help but prompt a person like me to self-examine as well and it’s exhausting, challenging and a little scary to reveal yourself, even to yourself. Which makes what Richard did pretty brave in my view. It’s also reassuring that everything I could think and question about this topic and far more is covered. It’s not just me. And if the close friend of a transsexual woman admits to these thoughts then it’s probably okay for me to think them too.

I definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in friendship, the everyday life of someone who’s in some way “different”, gender roles and self-examination. Is it alright to recommend it to people who are interested in gender dysmorphia? Should I stop with these questions now?

By some kind of fortuitous timing, Dru and Richard have just launched a new joint website, Being Drusilla. Check it out!

Published 2008 by Harvill Secker, a division of Random House