It’s been a long time since I’ve been captivated by a book this good. Page after page, image after image, scene after scene, I kept saying to myself how does he do this? How could Eugenides come up with that perfect comparison/reference/character nuance/detail over and over? On nearly every page, I stopped to reread and savor: I’d laugh or wince or smile. After persisting through The Signature of All Things, I thought maybe I just don’t like family sagas all that much, and yet here is a family epic that trumps any others I can think of (yes, including The Thorn Birds). Middlesex begins in Asia Minor with the 1922 ousting of the Ottoman Greeks from Western Turkey where they had settled (peacefully) among Turks and Armenians and Europeans for centuries (after the Greek Army invaded Western Turkey in 1919 reclaiming ancient Greek territory, the Turks set out to gain it back). Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides, brother and sister, living in a hill town near Bursa, head for the harbor at Smyrna along with thousands of other Greek refugees trying to flee the Turkish army marching toward them. Standing on the shore while their small village burns, they watch in horror as their fellow Greeks and Armenians are drowning, burning, and getting shot. With some creative maneuvering, Lefty gets them quick passage on a French boat where he and Desdemona get married (complicated story–yes, they’re brother and sister as well as third cousins).
This three-generation story is told in flashback by Cal Stephanides, their grandson, our narrator, who lived the first fourteen years of his life as a girl, Callie. Born a hermaphrodite (a term replaced today by intersex) with 5-Alpha-Reductase—none of which anyone discovered until 14 years later—Callie is actually, biologically much more boy than girl. A middle aged man living in Berlin, Cal narrates both through his eyes and through his younger Callie eyes, taking us from the Turkish shore with Lefty and Desdemona to the early years of his parents, Milton and Tessie, to his own childhood in Detroit and eventually the suburb of Grosse Pointe.
Eugenides builds this epic using so many historical, cultural, and religious references that I found myself constantly turning to Wikipedia for additional background information from the genetics and reproductive science behind intersex births to the historical uprisings between Greece and Turkey to the religious traditions of the Orthodox church to the foibles of the most famous Greek politician–Michael Dukakis. In addition to the brilliant writing, I can’t deny that many cultural references of the 60’s and 70’s resonated with me, having grown up just five years behind Callie. Tab, the Cadillac Seville, Detroit’s Renaissance Center, hot dog franchises, school desegregation, and the hunt for the candlestick and the fish in a Highlights magazine puzzle—I remember each one vividly, and reading Callie’s story brought back some 70’s memorabilia. This is a great read, the kind that makes it difficult to start anything else. image credit: http://www.rookiemag.com/2013/11/family-sagas/