Some books make me angry when I like them.
Oprah’s picks. Bestsellers. That one book your really annoying friend doesn’t ever shut up about. You know what I mean.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides totally fits this bill. I had simply heard too much praise and seen it on too many acquaintances’ bookshelves, and my inner anti-establishment grumpy teenager reared her ugly head and turned up her pompous nose. This book, she said, simply cannot be worth the hype.
She was so wrong.
With the scope of an epic, a graceful blend of magical realism and comedy, and a voice so strong and self-assured you’d swear it was a memoir, Middlesex is the engrossing story of Calliope Stephanides, an intersex man born with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. This condition caused Calliope (“Cal” as a man, “Callie” as a girl) to be born with female characteristics, and not realize his true gender identity until his teens. Eugenides, with effortless beauty, traces Cal’s transformation—not really from girl to man so much as from the sexually confused, socially unsure daughter of second-generation Greek immigrants to a self-aware and mostly confident diplomat living abroad.
But this novel shows so many more transformations than Calliope’s: siblings to lovers, immigrant to citizen, lower class to middle class, Greek tragedy to American Dream. It is a paean to both the dying city of Detroit and the small village of Bithynios, where Cal’s family story originates. It is a commentary on sexuality, on urbanization, on race relations, on family. It is all-encompassing without being overwhelming. It is, truly, a stunning work of art.
What amazed me most was the narrative voice Eugenides gave Cal. Neither overtly male nor female, neither feminine nor masculine, Cal is the ultimate Every(wo)man. But beyond just adequately navigating that tricky slope of gender in voice, Eugenides accomplishes something more here: He makes Cal, this man stuck in a state of gendered limbo that so few can relate to, infinitely empathetic. His thoughts, his reactions, his doubts and questions and lusts and fears, create a universal language we all understand. Eugenides lets us love Cal—and all the characters—as much as he loves him, and loved writing him. And why shouldn’t we? Like his Greek mythological namesake, Calliope spews pitch-perfect poetry.