Why did I avoid this book for so long? Here are some reasons:
1. It came out a little bit after The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, and the two books were frequently discussed together. I hated The Corrections; thus I thought I would hate Middlesex too.
2. It sounded like an "issue book" (see my post about The Girls, another book I avoided for this reason) -- as I said in that post, I don't like to read about medical conditions or disasters; I'm not squeamish, but I don't like the voyeuristic feeling that these kinds of books sometimes evoke.
3. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, an award I associate with white male authors such as Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth, a crowd that I avoid.
All my hesitations were stupid. It's a good learning experience. This is really a great book and has lots of things in it that I like: interesting characters, including lots of women, history (the great fire of Smyrna in 1922: who knew?!), and the immigrant family experience (Detroit from the 1920's to the 1970's). Calliope/Cal's medical condition, a hormone/enzyme deficiency that results in ambiguous genitalia is handled very well, with great insight and sensitivity. The resolution of this condition, while compelling, is only one part of the book. This is also a great story of an extended family coming to America and assimilating. Eugenides is smart to broaden the book's focus to include all these other aspects. It keeps everything in perspective.
Middlesex is Oprah Winfrey’s summer reading selection, and there’s a good interview with Eugenides on her site. He says his goal was to create a character who can speak with authority on life as both a man and as a woman. I think he achieves this, for the most part, though because he tells the story looking backwards, from an adult (male) perspective, he never really writes as a woman, he only remembers what it was like to be one (a girl, really). But still, it works. Calliope/Cal is very sympathetic and believable. (And some parts that I thought might be weird turned out to be okay: see my earlier post here.)
What an improvement over The Corrections! Why did people talk about these books as if they were similar? Both are family sagas, written by young male writers. But where The Corrections is claustrophobic and nasty, Middlesex is sprawling and optimistic.
I just looked at a list of recent Pulitzer Prize winners and I see lots of books and authors that I like: books by Michael Chabon, and Anne Tyler, for example, both of whom I’ve read and enjoyed this year, along with Jhumpa Lahiri and Carol Sheilds, just to name two. But there are several stinkers on the list too; I won’t say which ones. I can't say that Middlesex has cured me of my resistance to this award, but maybe it's broken it down a bit.
(Book 29, 2007)