I love it when assigned reading for an English class is so enjoyable that you want to read faster than you’ve been assigned. Surprise surprise – the “sophomore” class that I’m taking as a senior (loooong story) has had three books like that so far. Jane Eyre was good, Lolita was one I had an excuse to get to, and now the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.
The book has always been on my radar (like Lolita) as one of those books I should get around to reading but I just never picked it up – there was always something else that seemed more interesting at the time. Now I’m glad that I finally got around to reading it – the critical acclaim is (mostly) well-deserved.
The story is certainly not a “normal” one – it is the story of a recessive chromosome passed through generations, it is the story of a family through three generations, and it is the story of a child stuck between two genders.
To be very honest, the book lost steam near the end. The story of Lefty and Desdemona, grandparents to Cal (the hermaphrodite narrator), was a fascinating one – the incest angle was handled very well and it was less about two siblings falling in love and more about two people who love each other trying to start a new life in America. As the story progresses, with a new generation (of relatives falling in love) living through war and rights (you know, civil ones) and the 60s, the reader just gets wrapped up in Cal’s storytelling. I mean, Eugenides’ storytelling, in reality – the way he, through Cal, references so many things and creates such a “hyper-realism” in the narration… its brilliant. Sometimes its a mostly unnoticeable reference – the use of the name “Plantaganet” or a twist on an obscure Shakespeare quote – but all of them add a layer of color to the novel, making it a delight to read.
The first 14 years of Cal’s life are, in my opinion, the most exciting of the novel. She – Calliope, at the time – lives through so much and experiences life in such a delightful way that I was reminded of being a kid again. The house on Middlesex (the only slightly ham-fisted symbol in the novel. The street Calliope grows up on is “Middlesex” – really?!) is a very cool house and the family settles into this quirky dysfunctional American life that anyone who has grown up in suburbia can relate to. The scenes with “the Obsure Object” – Cal’s first true love – are fantastic. The quiet passion, the sexual discovery, the fun of the text… there are awkward and uncomfortable moments, like the sex in the cabin with Jerome, but they only heighten the novel – they aren’t awkward in the sense of “oh, this is weird and doesn’t fit” but rather “ohh…. Cal….”
Unfortunately, in my opinion, the novel falls flat in the last hundred pages or so, after Calliope runs away from her family in New York in order to escape any sort of procedures that Dr. Luce wants her to undergo in order to remain a girl. As Calliope becomes Cal… I just found myself not really caring. The big moment of the novel should, of course, be the realization that Calliope was not in fact a girl and that moment was big. Unfortunately, everything after it (not including the “present” interjections from Cal about Julie, the girl in Berlin – those were nice counterpoints to the history bits) just fails to excite. It is somewhat uncomfortable but mostly just disappointing. It isn’t as tight or as engaging as the earlier points of the novel. Maybe this is because Cal is writing about himself? I’m not sure. Regardless, I was let down by the way the pacing just faltered as the finish line approached.
To Sum Up: Despite the faltering of the ending, this was a great novel. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I think it deserved the Pulitzer, the Oprah’s Book Club spot, and everything else. I just wish it could have taken that jump to “really great” by keeping up the pacing to the end. I really ought to read Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides now too – because I know I’ll want to read whatever he publishes next, so why not get the full scope?