by Jeffery Eugenides
Farrar Straus Giroux; September 4, 2002
Middlesex is one of those books that was recommended to me so many times that I put off reading it out of spite. It was recommended as a great novel, a Pulitzer winner, another novel by the author of The Virgin Suicides, and a novel about an intersexed individual. That last one is the really important one. I took a year-long seminar on the moral and legal position of intersexuality in the U.S. my first year of graduate school, and I've been very interested in the challenges and bigotries faced by intersexed people ever since.
And, to the extent that it is a novel about an intersexed person, I liked Middlesex. I thought Eugenides portrayed his intersexual narrator, Cal, as a complete person facing a very serious and very complicated relationship with his body, without making him a freak, and I appreciated that. The last third of the book, in fact, was great.
But man the first two-thirds were slow. Starting in early 20th century Europe, with the emigration of Cal's paternal grandparents, the book slogs through three generations of tedious family history, all of which lends very little to Cal's particular story. Besides making it a mediocre 550 page book that could have been a very good 250 page book, the first sections also give the reader (or at least gave this reader) every reason to put the book down and not pick it back up. It was only the hope that eventually it would actually get to Cal himself that kept me reading, and having finished Middlesex, I'm off fiction for a while. At some point, the self-indulgence just gets to be too much.
All of that being said, I think Middlesex is worth reading. Intersexuality is a subject that has not been adequately dealt with in our culture, and Eugenides' fictional account of it rang very true in comparison to the multiple non-fiction accounts I've read (see Intersex in the Age of Ethics and Lessons from the Intersexed, for example). I believe fiction has much to add to this discussion, and for that reason if for no other, I'm glad Eugenides wrote this book.