Everyone struggles against despair, but it always wins in the end. It has to. It's the thing that lets us say goodbye.
Hardcover: Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 4, 2002, 544 pages (ISBN: 0374199698)
Softcover: Published by Picador on September 16, 2003, 544 pages (ISBN: 0312422156)
2003 Pulitzer Prize winner - Fiction
Dear Mr. Eugenides,
I just finished reading your novel Middlesex and it is weighing heavily on my mind. In a great many ways, I identify with your central character, Cal. Unlike Cal, I am not a hermaphrodite, nor do I have any strict gender identity issues. However, I identify greatly with Cal in one key way: the social taboos committed by an earlier generation have had a grave impact on my life, one that affects me every day, just like Cal.
This book is a muddled train wreck, and therein lies its genius. Middlesex is the second novel by Jeffrey Eugenides after a nine year hiatus following his debut, The Virgin Suicides.
Here, Eugenides seems to be bursting with ideas that all flow together as if someone left the cake out in the rain. This book is simultaneously a panorama of 20th century history, a look at a Greek-American family through a much different set of eyes than the atrocious My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and an analysis of the social difficulties of a hermaphrodite, who serves as the main character in the novel. These different attributes all flow together here to create a complex but yet very engaging and readable novel, one that I devoured in a weekend.
I guess I'm not sure why I am writing to you, Mr. Eugenides. I suppose it is because you are the only connection to someone that exists inside of your mind, or perhaps it is the hope that Cal exists as a real person somewhere, and you are merely fictionalizing Cal's journey.
In a lot of ways, I guess it is a desire to seek understanding from someone who understands this, who understands that the sexual choices of an earlier generation can so radically alter my life each and every moment.
The narrator of Middlesex is C. Stephanides, a hermaphrodite who is raised as a girl but chooses to become a boy during adolescence. Using C. Stephanides as a central character allows for a very poignant discussion of nature vs. nurture in terms of gender and sex. Do the parents have the power to choose the gender of the child, and does that impact which gender the child will choose when he or she becomes old enough to rationally make that decision?
Most of the first half of the book is a re-telling of the Stephanides family history, dating back to the second Greco-Turkish War in 1922, which drove the grandparents of C. Stephanides out of Greece and to the United States. Part of what makes this early portion of the book so intriguing and vitally important to what comes later is the fact that C. Stephanides' paternal grandparents, who escaped Greece here, were in fact brother and sister, and the pair, for obvious reasons, hid this fact when they came to the United States.
You see, multiple pairs of my great grandparents were first cousins and one pair were in fact uncle and niece. During this generation, a particular recessive allele became very abundant in the bloodline, but luckily for my ancestors, they didn't have an opportunity for both parents to pass on this recessive allele. Instead, it danced down the generations a bit, finding its way to me.
There is this little recessive allele of the thyroperoxidase gene, which was carried recessively by both of my parents and due to the luck of the genetic draw, was passed onto me. What does it do, you might wonder? For starters, I have to drink a lot of water every single day, literally gallons of it. I dry out extremely quickly, and I can often undergo dehydration only a half an hour after consuming a glass full of water. Thus, stomach flus and such things are extremely dangerous for me; imagine someone sitting by the toilet, throwing up, then chugging water, in a seemingly endless cycle for hours.
It gets worse.
My only significant problem with the book itself comes with the ending, in which Eugenides seems to have some difficulty determining exactly how to end the book, and thus it comes off with what I call a "case of Adaptation." For those who haven't seen the film Adaptation, the ending is full of huge, overly dramatic plot swerves that seem rather out of place in terms of what came before them, yet there is just enough of a common thread to tie the book together.
Given that my thyroid not only doesn't function, but in some ways is actually counterproductive, I also have almost a complete lack of interest in sex; instead, I have overwhelming desire for mere companionship. I get my greatest joys in life sitting up all night talking to a friend, much more than sex ever provides; although I can have sex, it's not a strong pleasure for me at all except in the sense that it is indeed an act of intimacy and sharing.
In this, I feel cut off in many ways from most other people, and this cutting off is due to choices not made by me, but made by people generations ago. Cal, for lack of a better idea, seems to be one of the few people alive who could really understand this.
In the end, Middlesex does what any great novel does: it makes you think about the issues raised in terms of your own life and belief structure, delivering it to you in terms of characters and situations painted well enough that they are real. Which is stronger, nature or nurture, in terms of gender choice? What happens if nature gives you contradictory messages? Does love ever become more important than the taboo of incest?
This book is strongly recommended if the reader is willing to not immediately condemn the characters for poor social choices; a friend of mine returned the book to me as soon as she discovered that incest was accepted within the family, even with the maturity (compared to tripe like Flowers in the Attic) that the issue is handled with.
Thank you for writing this book, Mr. Eugenides. Regardless of whether Cal exists or not, it made me feel a little less alone in the world.
This writeup was written for The Bookworm Turns: An Everything Literary Quest.