Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex is an epic story, the family history of Calliope Stephanides, a young girl who discovers at age fourteen that she is actually a boy, a hermaphrodite. Tracing the recessive gene that gives Cal his ingrown gonads, the story starts with Cal’s Greek grandparents in Turkey, and courses through time to the present – their escape from the Turkish massacre in Smyrna in the early, their new life in Detroit, their son Milton and cousin’s daughter Tessie, and on to Calliope’s eventual discovery of himself.
From a purely historical perspective, Middlesex makes an interesting read. Eugenides colorfully paints the long gone or far away eras of Greek village life 80 years ago, the crossing of the Atlantic to Ellis Island, the struggles of young immigrants in a new land, working on the assembly line at the Ford factory, bootlegging operations over the Canadian border, the Detroit riots of the 60s, and the hippies of the early 70s.
Most people I know who have read this book rave about it. I struggled through it, though I think the struggle may be because I listened to the audiobook rather than reading the prose. The audiobook is narrated by Kristoffer Tabori, whose voice, although Tabori brings a great deal of expression and character voices to the task, I find rather grating. One of the benefits of reading, rather than listening, to a book is that you can give the narrator the voice in your own mind that fits the words best. Like listening to Donald Trump, Tabori’s voice was always a disconnect for me. It just doesn’t fit the part of Cal in my mind. The other problem with listening to the book is that every flowery description gets read outloud, rather than skimmed over. Eugenides’ writing is excessive. Descriptions that may read well in print just sound too much like carrying on in audio. Eugenides narrator acknowledges that his storytelling is somewhat Homeric; but is this truly the narrator, or is this just how Eugenides writes? He won the Pulitzer prize for this book, but quite frankly I don’t think it deserves that prize. The writing sometimes sparkles, and is always entertaining, but just isn’t the quality of Jhumpa Lahiri, who also won a Pulitzer for her Interpreter of Maladies.
The other thing I couldn’t help thinking as I read this was that it was so obviously written by a man. Again, I can’t tell if this is just how Eugenides writes, or if it is by design given the character of the narrator. Although the narrator, Cal, a hermaphrodite who was raised a girl until the age fourteen, claims to have strong female sensitivities, I see no evidence of that in the writing. Eugenides, or Cal, describes the motives and thoughts of women in the story as a man would think they would feel. This is somewhat annoying, much like a man claiming to be a great lover when he is anything but.
The story, thankfully, is compelling, especially the story of the Greek grandparents. Once engaged in this family epic it was hard to put it down.
Of special interest to me was how the leading doctors were treating hermaphroditism in the 70s. When I was an undergrad at Stanford working at the faculty club in the late 70s, I was appalled to overhear the content of a heated argument of doctors from the medical school. Apparently there was a girl in my class who, engaged to be married, had never had her period, and had gone to the doctors at Stanford Medical School to find out why not. The doctors discovered that she actually had XY chromosomes and was really a boy with a vagina and undeveloped male gonads. The argument was over whether or not to tell the girl. The head doctor, and the other doctors (all male) save one, decided telling the girl of her true biological gender would ruin her life, so they weren’t going to do it. The lone dissenting voice was that of a young female doctor, who was appalled that her colleagues were “playing God” with this patient and deciding what she would get to know about her own body. The doctors did tell the girl that she was born without a uterus and would never be able to have children. I would hope that twenty-five years later, with hard fought and won patients’ rights, that this discussion would not take place today.