This has more than you could expect from a big American novel – immigration, assimilation, sprawling and complicated families, race, food, diners, urban decline, enterprise, all of it – but with an added twist that marks the ambivalence of everything.
The narrator is Calliope Stephanides, a hermaphrodite. This is her / his story but it’s also that of her Greek immigrant grandparents Desdemona and Lefty, and her parents Tessie and Milton. It begins with her grandparents living in Greece and eventually travelling to the States during war. In these extraordinary times Desdemona and Lefty, who are in fact brother and sister, realise their love for one another and marry, though vow to tell nobody.
After moving to America we follow them finding their way in the US and settling in Detroit. Lefty earns money by starting a speakeasy and then a bar – the Zebra Rooms – they have children, and the book then moves on to their son, Milton, and his wife Tessie. Whereas the grandparents remain only partially assimilated, Milton is the all-American male of the American dream, eventually creating a successful chain of hot dog restaurants, but managing to alienate his wife and kids with his posturing masculinity.
Then comes Calliope (and her oddly named brother, Chapter Eleven), and we follow her through the first 16 or so years of her life. Her gradual coming of age as a teenager sees her peers becoming adolescents but Calliope’s body refusing to grow breasts or begin periods. She falls for another girl (known as the Obscure Object), but eventually she ends up going to see a sex specialist who diagnoses her and says a small operation will make her all-girl.
But Calliope doesn’t feel like a girl, so she runs away – hitching, living in a park in San Francisco and becoming an act in a sexual freak show. And she cuts her hair, changes her name to Cal and becomes a boy.
This is just one of those huge absorbing novels, where you can get lost in the characters and the romance and the details. The lives of the family are set against the backdrop of Greek and Turkish wars, prohibition, race riots, the rise and decline of industry in Detroit, sexual liberation, all of it.
As the narrator, Calliope gives us details that nobody could know – about her grandparents, about herself in the womb – making it part research, part fantasy, part guesswork, part elaboration, part author’s license.
And throughout, what Eugenides gives us the ambiguity of life – nothing is straightforward. The Greek war with Turkey, the island of Cyprus split between the two, marital and familial love, nature and nurture, sexuality and gender, nothing is ever one thing or the other but lives in an ambiguous place in the middle. Middlesex.