“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960, and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” And with that, Middlesex, the story of Calliope, or Cal, Stephanides and her family begins. I first became interested in Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides after reading a fellow Cannonball Reader Review. I love the different books I’ve been exposed to through these reviews. Sure, Middlesex is a book I might have eventually found on my own, and I do seem to be reading a lot more vampire and fantasy novels than usual, but I still appreciate that my literary interests are expanding.
Cal Stephanides is now an adult, living in Germany, and looking back on the history of his family and his adolescence to help him figure out what made him what he is and to see where he came from. He starts the history of his family with the story of his grandparents who lived in a tiny village in Asia Minor and ran away to America in order to seek refuge from the Turks in 1922. He follows his grandparents as they travel to Detroit, set up their lives in the Greek-American community, and have children. And then Cal follows the story of his parents, then subsequently the story of the third generation—himself and his brother.
But this is a lot more than just a story of a family. Each and every character becomes a real person, fascinatingly filled out and believable. And this story is told by Cal, who highlights some of the small details of the lives of his parents and grandparents that irrevocably made him what he was. The story is beautifully and sensitively told with detail that fills out the locations and communities. The first part of the book consists of an escape during war, a love story between Cal’s grandparents, and the travel and life of immigrants making a life in the United States. The second part of the book is the story of the second generation in America—how Cal’s parents relate to their own parents and their Greek heritage—as well as how they fall in love and build a life together. The third section of the book is the story of Cal, or Calliope as she is born. This is mainly a coming-of-age story that is utterly relatable, but made even more dramatic by what the reader knows about Calliope.
There is a lot of built-in suspense throughout the book as Cal lets some details slip—such as the fact that he was born a girl; but then you still want to find out what exactly he is, how he found out, and how he felt about it, that keeps you turning the pages. Some of these longer, epic novels tend to lose steam as they near their ending, but this book was the opposite. I thought I knew what was coming but was continuously surprised. The night before I finished this book, I couldn’t get it out of my head and started dreaming about what was coming up next. And even after I finished, Eugenides left enough suggestion of the rest of the story of Cal’s life that I wanted more. There is definitely a sense of whole lives lived out in this book, and I thought it was amazing. One of the best that I’ve read in this contest.
Tangent (spoiler?): I was so curious about Cal’s brother’s name (Chapter Eleven) when he was first introduced, and I was sure it was going to eventually be explained, but then it never was. It’s funny, though, that by the end of the book, I’d gotten so used to it and was so distracted by the other goings-on, that I’d almost forgotten about Chapter Eleven’s name. But now I’m thinking that the grown-up Cal must have started calling his brother by this nickname sometime in the period after the novel, when Chapter Eleven brought down the family business.