For a novel with an intersex protagonist and all-knowing narrator, as suggested in its title – which is also the location of the family’s house, where Cal Stephanides was raised as a girl – and as revealed right in the beginning, Jeffrey Eugenides’s “Middlesex” is anchored by three chronological narratives. And these narratives are connected by a mutated gene “that had lain buried in [the family’s] bloodline for two hundred and fifty years, biding its times, waiting for Atatürk to attack, for Hajienestis to turn into glass, for a clarinet to play seductively out a back window, until, coming together with its recessive twin, it started the chain of events that led up to [the protagonist]”.
– The first narrative is Stephanides’s bildungsroman, through which themes of gender identity and sexual orientation are explored. Notwithstanding his narration Stephanides enters the novel much later, and it is explained how the recessive condition of 5-alpha-reductase deficiency results in him having the physical characteristics of a woman, but the genes of a man. The second half of “Middlesex” focuses on his experiences in school and home, and the novel then revolves around his discovery and the events which follow.
– The second is the stories of his grandparents and parents. Both are devoted couples in spite of their struggles and disagreements, and in fact the mix of ups and downs adds richness to the characterisation. It is not often one feels the insecurities (and helplessness, sometimes) of the characters, but Eugenides: pays attention to habits, routines, and even small eccentricities of the characters; portrays them to be imperfect, and thus believable and relatable; and gives them hilarious conversations.
– And underlying both narratives is socio-political discourse, as the characters move across time (from 1922 to the present-day of the novel) and space (from Bursa, Turkey to Michigan, the United States). Historical events such as the Balkan Wars and the Detroit riots are referenced – through dialogues between the characters, through changes to the lives of the family, and oftentimes through the narration – and in particular I was drawn to the description of the monotony of the assembly-line in Ford, where Stephanides’s grandfather “Lefty” worked for a short stint. And such descriptions are nice complements.
A little mystery is added towards the end of the novel (with an unexpected twist too), though some may find the resolution unsatisfying.
It may be unsatisfying, because the challenge of balancing these three narratives – in my opinion – resulted in an inadequate exposition of the protagonist’s story before and after the main climax. A little too rushed, in other words, with developments inconsistently rushed through and key events not fleshed out. “Middlesex” with its cast of vulnerable characters and a straightforward plot remains for a great read, and is likely to leave the reader teary-eyed at the many moments of loss, even if it does leave the reader wanting more.