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The book jacket brief -
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of 1967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Point, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.
Intriguing isn't it? The novel, which is around 518 pages long, is entirely told in Callie’s voice. It starts off with her grandmother Desdemona getting married and fleeing from a war ravaged Greece and landing up in Detroit. Here they have children and build a life. The novel goes on to explore the lives of the next two generations, Desdemona’s children and lastly, Callie.
But I have simplified it way too much here. What makes this book such a riveting read is the way Eugenides seamlessly moves in and out of the present and the past, like a flawless melody. His prose is a magic bag that glitters with unshed tears, sparkles with witty humor and thrums with a poignance that is subtle yet tugs at your heart. Most importantly, it’s not just about the people that Eugenides writes about. He surrounds them with the culture that oozes in the Detroit of the 1920s and 1930s. It is boom time for the auto industry, which is the heart of Detroit and it’s the time for swing and jazz and beer. He weaves in the family’s experiences with the occurrences in Detroit, like the race riots, and we see how it affects them.
Now for the protagonist. That Callie is a hermaphrodite, we learn right at the beginning. And we already know the guilty secret that she learns right at the end of the book. I felt bad, holding on to this nugget of information, which might have saved Callie from a few puzzling situations. Callie herself is a funny, observant and sensitive narrator. She begins to suspect that there is something wrong with her when she reaches adolescence. And this is one of the most brilliantly written sections in the book. The pain, the insights, the fears and the pressures of adolescence that Callie faces, but is unable to match up to, is written in vivid prose. Eugenides’ in-depth, almost psychic understanding of this stage is amazing. Eugenides’ also subverts the definition of normality through Callie as she is not ‘normal’ in the conventional sense of the word. But the stories of all the people around her that we learn and those whom she observes turn out to be as bizarre as it can get. It’s all told in Callie’s characteristic conversational tone tinged with a wry humor.
For some reason Callie’s brother is simply named Chapter Eleven and we see glimpses of a different kind of adolescence in him. All in all, I loved Eugenides’ characterizations. Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize and I would say it’s a richly deserving one. This has been one of the best modern classics I have read in a long time and I would recommend all you readers to laugh, observe and think with Callie Stephanides like I did.
Verdict: A wonderful, wonderful book