I bought this book for myself. This is an honest and spoiler-free review.
Middlesex tells 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 moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret, and the 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.
I picked up Middlesex at the end of May while our house was still out of electricity after a crazy storm. I had bought this book early last year as it was a book I’d been aware of for a long time, having loved The Virgin Suicides movie which is based on the book also by Jeffrey Eugendies. So this book was a kind of “bucket list” read for me; there was no urgency to reading it. Despite what I gathered from this book’s summary, I quickly discovered as I was sucked into the world of this book that I had no idea I could have expected.
One word could be best used to describe this novel: EPIC.
Middlesex is told from the narrator of Calliope Stephanides as an adult living in Germany. He describes his family history starting with his paternal grandparents, Lefty and Desmodena, to reveal how he came to be who he is. His narrative voice is absolutely charming. I think he’s one of my favorite narrators of all time, the way he describes his family’s past as if he’s a fly on the wall, zooming in and out of focus to relay his grandparents’ and parents’ unique life experiences as Greek immigrants in the Detroit during the 20th century.
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.
Going into this book, I was expecting it to focus primarily on the narrator’s life. So I was so surprised to find that this book lingers far longer upon the experiences of his immigrant grandparents and why they had to leave their home, how they crafted new identities and made it through Ellis Island, and how they adjusted to new lives as Americans in Detroit in the 1920s at the height of its greatness. I loved learning about Detroit, a city of which I’m sad to say I’ve only had negative associations growing up.
I was also surprised at how this book was also a love letter to Detroit, and how much I learned about history: the eastern European immigrant experience pre-WWII, the Civil Rights movements of African-Americans and the LGBT+ community, etc. It was so unexpected but also so appreciated.
I actually loved learning about the history through the grandparents’ and parents’ lives so much that it was a kind of a bummer when the book finally began to focus on Callie, especially after their family moves into the suburbs. Much of the narration at this point begins to center on Callie’s childhood and adolescent experiences leading up to her self-discovery.
I loved this book. It took me a while to finish, but it was an engrossing read that completely transported me into the story with all its historical and familial detail. To anyone who thinks they might want to read this book, I encourage you to do so. I also recommend that you have a good amount of time to commit to it. It took me almost a month to finish this book, although to be fair I went almost two weeks without picking it up after burnout, even though I was enjoying it! Also, I skipped ahead to the end eventually, impatient to see what would happen.
I think this book is an incredibly timely read right now. If you live in the US and follow the news, you likely have heard about the recent controversy about North Carolina trying to block transgender people from using the gendered bathrooms with which they identify. And just this past weekend, an unbalanced psychopath (likely a closeted & conflicted homosexual) took an AR-15 (an assault weapon which is legal for US civilians to purchase because of the National Rifle Association) to kill 49 innocent people in a gay nightclub in Orlando.
We are still fighting for a world that understands and is accepting of all people, regardless of race, sex, etc. So I really thinks books like Middlesex are great reminders of history that is rarely taught in schools (based on my Texas high school experience) that it’s important to know where we came from so that we can put our best feet forward.