(This review first appeared in November 2005)
Rating:Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2002), 530 pages.
Middlesex is an original and exceptionally well-written book about a hermaphrodite believed to be female at birth who was raised female and lived as a female until the age of fourteen. Up to that point, the author uses a female voice to tell the story, complete with the expected female thought processes and female desires and concerns. Later, when the character changes gender, the narrative voice changes—perfectly—to a young man.
This book explores the complexities of choosing one sex or the other. But like all great books, this is much more than its primary story. It has a wide-ranging list of topics, including: Turkish atrocities against the Greeks in the 1920s, the Greek immigrant experience in Prohibition-era Detroit, and the Detroit race riots of the 1960s. Through it all, the author veers off on numerous captivating tangents while maintaining a highly intelligent, poetic, and totally relatable voice. I have nothing negative whatsoever to say about this book; I was enthralled from the first page to the last.
Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.
He was a great teacher, Mr. da Silva. He treated us with complete seriousness, as if we eighth graders, during fifth period, might settle something scholars had been arguing about for centuries. When he spoke himself, it was in complete paragraphs. If you listened closely it was possible to hear the dashes and commas in his speech, even the colons and semicolons. Mr. da Silva had a relevant quotation for everything that happened to him and in this way evaded real life. Instead of eating his lunch, he told you what Oblonsky and Levin had for lunch in Anna Karenina. Or, describing a sunset from Daniel Deronda, he failed to notice the one that was presently falling over Michigan.
Mr. da Silva had spent a summer in Greece six years before. He was still keyed up about it. When he described visiting the Mani, his voice became even mellower than usual, and his eyes glistened. Unable to find a hotel one night, he had slept on the ground, awaking the next morning to find himself beneath an olive tree. Mr. da Silva had never forgotten that tree. They had had a meaningful exchange, the two of them. Olive trees are intimate creatures, eloquent in their twistedness. It’s easy to understand why the ancients believed human spirits could be trapped inside them. Mr. da Silva had felt this, waking up in his sleeping bag.