Size matters

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.