middlesex by jeffrey eugenidesJeffrey Eugenides frequently writes novels with strange premises. In The Virgin Suicides he created a story around a family of teenage girls who kill themselves. Weird, but highly successful and an entertaining read. His second novel, Middlesex, successfully tackles a new, equally tricky topic. Incest, immigration and intersex are just a few topics covered.

Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Price for Fiction, Middlesex is an epic story in every sense of the word. Spanning almost a century and across three generations, it tells the story of Calliope/Cal who was born as a hermaphrodite but only finds out when she is a a teenager. In order to tell her story (just a quick note – although Calliope eventually identifies as a man, I’m going to be using feminine pronouns because the majority of the novel she is portrayed as a woman) though, Calliope has to go back through time to when her grandparents fell in love with one another in Turkey. Of course, things were slightly more complicated than a usual love story because they had to deal with a war, a rogue gene (which shows up in Cal years later) and, oh yeah, the fact that they are brother and sister.

Tackling everything from ‘The American Dream’ to the Depression through to gender identity, Middlesex is a huge bite to chew, but thankfully Jeffrey Eugenides has the skills and finesse to make it a worthy read.

Do I think that Middlesex deserved the Pulitzer Prize? Wholeheartedly yes, but that didn’t make this the easiest book to read. While the premise definitely intrigued me, like many epics, it was what I would describe as a ‘slow burn’. For the first half the book (which is about 530 pages), we aren’t dealing directly with Cal’s story, but rather the story of her grandparents, their immigration and then the romance between her own parents. Despite being a story about gender identity and intersex, first we are told stories about the Depression, The American Dream and racial injustices in Detroit. And while this definitely adds depth, colour and emotion to what would otherwise have become a sensationalist novel, it can be a bit trying.

In saying that, Middlesex is written beautifully. Reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and even Donna Tartt’s latest novel, The GoldfinchMiddlesex is truly the complete package. While the story does revolve around Cal, it also revolves around the lives of so many other characters, who are each as flawed, complex and human as the next. And though it is a large novel, the fluidity and beauty of Eugenides’s writing show that he has bought care and thought into every page written.

What I enjoyed best about this story though was Eugenides’s ability to tackle subjects rife with taboos and humanise them. Incest is certainly frowned upon, yet portrayed in Middlesex it just comes across as another form of love. And with Calliope we learn about the anguishes and burdens that an intersex person has to deal with – a perspective we’re rarely shown in film, television or in novels. Though each story would of course be individual, I enjoyed being given this viewpoint in a way that was sensitive and accurate.

Middlesex isn’t for the faint of heart or for anyone who wants a quick Sunday read. If you choose this book, know that it will be complex, exhausting, but also truly rewarding. It’s definitely worth the slow burn and worth the hours spent reading it.

Have you read Middlesex? Are you a fan of Jeffrey Eugenides? Let me know!

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