Thursday, January 14, 2010

Every Family Has Their Thing

No family is the perfect model of Leave it to Beaver. Every family has their dysfunction, quirks, skeletons and mine is no exception. Maybe that's why I relished the prospect of reading Middlesex.

Middlesex is, in a lot of ways, the classic family epic. Not quite as "epic" as a Leon Uris novel (think Trinity) but full of rich history, secrets, hardship and humour. Unlike some family epics, Middlesex doesn't really deal with a family business, backstabbing siblings or the like. Rather, this family's dark, dirty secret is a genetic mutation caused by some bizarrely incestuous relationships. Dormant for years, it surfaces in Calliope Stephanides.

The opening of the novel kind of says it all when it comes to Calliope's or Cal's situation: "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." Calliope, born exquisitely beautiful and disarmingly different, is a hermaphrodite. Everybody knows there is something different about her but no one can put their finger on it. Not even her.

While the story around Calliope is unique and different, in my opinion the best part of the book is the first half or so as it chronicles the adventures of Calliope's grandparents. The historical context as well as the added twist that they are actually brother and sister makes for excellent reading. The story telling is very compelling.

Whether it is the Turkish invasion of the Greek port of Smyrna in the '20s, or the evolution and ravaging of Detroit through the automotive boom, prohibition, Depression, war and race riots, the historical background is well woven.

Cali's struggles are portrayed with sensitivity and humour. Adolescence is hard enough never mind when the things that are supposed to happen to you don't (breast development, period, interest in boys). Eugenides does a great job capturing that teen angst.

It's a little disappointing that the primary characters from the beginning kind of disappear altogether. But, every family has their thing and just when you think yours takes the cake, you know there is another family out there who can top it.

Jeffrey Eugenides
Knopf Canada