After reading a pretty…meh book – like England, England – it’s always good to come across something exciting. And since I’d heard so much about Middlesex (Ionuca, I’m looking at you 😀 ), I thought I’d give it a go. It totally paid off, of course, and I went through it in about a week – which for me is quite fast given the size of the book and the time I usually devote to reading. The narrative is quite complex as it combines the journey of a Greek-American from Callie to Cal, an entire, intricate family history (at times worthy of Salman Rushdie) and elements of history and the spirit of the 60s.
It all started out in a small village in Turkey, during the war between Greece and Turkey. Two brothers – Lefty and Desdemona – run away and, after surviving the Smyrna fires (the chapters dedicated to the destruction of this once great city are among the best in the book) and arrive to America. However, on the boat, where no one knows who they are, they get married (they had reluctantly fallen in love while in Greece and on the boat they play out a whole sketch, pretending they had only just met). This is how the mutated recessive gene that had affected children in their village for centuries arrives in the US. They set out to live in Detroit, in the Zizmos’ house – their cousin Lina and her husband Jimmy. Since it’s Detroit in the 20s, there has to be the booming auto industry – where Lefty will work only a few months. The expanding industrial area, the mechanical labor performed by unqualified workers, mostly immigrants (who are also taught English & hygiene lessons) – they all take a toll on Lefty, who is eager to be part of the “melting pot” and to adopt local customs. Desdemona on the other hand, having only her Americanized cousin as companion, withdraws in Greek cooking and a traditional household role. In the early stages of their relationships Lefty respects her greatly and treats her as nothing but an equal but, as they endure more hardships, as he starts getting involved in Jimmy Zizmo’s bootlegging and finally with the birth of their first child (a boy, Milton) they grow more and more apart. Desdemona and Lina are pregnant at the same time (Lina will give birth to a girl – Tessie – only a couple of weeks later), but the latter’s pregnancy is eyed with suspicion by her husband, as they didn’t have much of a sex life. He suspects her of cheating, but he doesn’t know that her sexual preferences in fact lie elsewhere (Lina was a lesbian and, given the era, it seems to me that her family accepted this with a lot more ease than many do today).
To make a long story short, Tessie and Milt will marry – and Callie will be their erstwhile daughter. They’ll live through race riots in Detroit, through the rise of their restaurant business from a single location (which is burned during said riots) to a chain of hot dog stands (The Pillars of Hercules, I believe), they’ll move from the city to the suburbs and start living a very American life.
Then one summer holiday, when she is 14, she goes to her best friends house (“the obscure object”, she calls her, because she happens to actually be in love with her) and has her first sexual experiences – both with a boy (the Object’s brother) and with a girl (the Object herself). Since she is 14, she doesn’t try to define her attractions; she acts on impulses, but still tries to keep her passion a secret – from everyone around, from the Object and even from herself. Following an accident, she is rushed to the hospital, where a doctor finally discovers she is intersexed. This is, as you might expect, a turning point in Callie’s life, the end of a genuinely normal life and the beginning of medical scrutiny. And while you know things worked out OK (everything is narrated in the 1st person by Cal, now in his 40s, a member of a diplomatic corps, on rotating assignments), you can’t help but squirm at the thought of Callie being prodded and studied.
All this – the history, the zeitgeist, the long and winding road of a gene to find its mate and a young girl’s struggle with her identity are a fascinating and engaging read, and they make up the first 3 parts of the book. Part 4, however, really spoiled things for me. After Callie reads her doctor’s report and finds out about the sex reassignment surgery, she decides to simply run away and start living as a boy. He hitchhikes across America (from New York to San Francisco), sleeps in a park together with other vagrants, works in a strip joint, and only comes back to Detroit when tragedy will strike his family. This sudden turn, made by a 14 year old girl who had, until then, lived a rather pampered life, struck me as unnecessary attention grabbing. Sure, it’s all very American (and I think by American I actually mean hollywoodian), but it feels lazy, up to the “plot twist” at the end. It’s like Mr. Eugenies took a break and never managed to find the same vibe. Or maybe I’m just talking crazy; but I was disappointed. And I have to agree with the review in NY Review of Books – Middlesex doesn’t really live up to its potential and Callie/Cal is not the fully fledged symbol of division (division inside the immigrant Stephanides clan, in the racial conflicts that surround them, in the woes of any adolescence) it was perhaps meant to be.
Looking at Complete Reviews – I see that The Economist gave the book a D, and I’m really sorry I can’t find the original article. It sounds like very harsh criticism for a Pulitzer winner (not that winning any sort of prize would automatically make a book worthwhile) and I am curious where it finds so many faults. Me, I would go for a B+.