I get ideas of what book to read next from a lot of places; sometimes, my current read will trigger my next, or I’ll see something in the book store that looks interesting, or I’ll see an interview with an author on a work that I want to read for myself. My favourite method of selecting a book is a recommendation, which is what happened with my latest read, Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. But this recommendation came in a roundabout way; my coworkers were sitting in our staff kitchen talking about it, when one said to the other “I just can’t believe that the grandmother married her brother.” My jaw hit the table, and I was so pissed that they had ruined (what I had assumed was) the big reveal of the book. Well, I figured, now that I knew, I might was well read the book to see what kind of train-wreck led up to that event. However, that information isn’t a secret – it’s the major conceit of the book, and Eugenides puts it on front-street.
So, what’s the story about? The story is being told to the reader by Calliope, and is about her family history, beginning with her grandparents as they immigrate from Greece to the States in the 1920s. On the boat over, they pretend to be strangers, marry, and when they arrive state-side, move in with their cousin (who is also married) who agrees to keep their secret. The book follows the history of Calli’s grandparents, her own parents, and then her own life until her 30s. The problem is that, while Calli’s childhood is what you would expect for a young girl from an enterprising immigrant family in
, Calli is different. The close blood-lines in the village where her grandparent came from, compounded by their incest, then the marriage of her parents (who were second cousins), led to a gene mutation that haunts Calli. The entirety of the story is one of self-reflection, self-discovery, and the self, in general. Detroit, Michigan
Eugenides won a Pulitzer Prize for Middlesex, and I completely agree with that. His writing style is at once flowery and descriptive, without using one extra or unnecessary word. He presents his narration almost as if Calli were sitting across from you relating the tale, or as if you’re reading the screen play for the action being described. You can see the words jump off the page, the characters come to life, and the plot unfolding in front of you; it’s an amazingly well-done writing style, and Eugenides seems to engage in it so effortlessly.
The characters that Eugenides created are a revelation. From Calli, the young girl who is never quite sure what is wrong with her, to Cal the run away, to Desdemona the guilt-wracked grandmother, to Lefty the unaffected grandfather, and extending to all the other characters who enter Calli’s life, either fleetingly, or who are central to the telling of her story, Eugenides uses a deft-hand to create and develop believable and sympathetic characters that the reader wants to know more of. It’s a treat in a book to get one engaging character, but to get an entire cast of them is something that I highly prize in the books that I read, and that I really enjoyed in this book.
So, final verdict? I would definitely say you have to read this book. The plot concept, the characters and the writing style are all so unique and engaging, that you’ll be missing out on a major contribution to the modern literary tradition if you skip it. I was so captured with Eugenides that I picked up his other books at the book store the other day, and I’m looking forwards to visiting his works again in the near future.