Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I've had a few days of writer's block, so I decided to read a real book instead of the huge numbers of RSS feeds I subscribe to. I like to read to help stoke my creative fire, and I usually choose literary fiction. I like to read something that challenges me and makes me consider the ways good writers structure their books.

The problem with this is that it can be darned depressing when I realize how good these folks are and how much I'd have to improve to even plagiarize properly from them .

Middlesex reminded me a bit of Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow. Both books try to look at critical times in US history through fictional families. Both are very well done. But Middlesex is a more intimate book, and one that spoke to me more emotionally.

The book tells of a Greek-American family, their immigration to the US in the 1920s, their slow assimilation to Detroit, their eventual love of America and the fate of their daughter, Calliope. Calliope was born with a mutation on one gene, an abnormality that we learn goes back many generations, but manifests itself in Calliope's intersexed body. She doesn't realize she's different until close to puberty, when the signals of her male genotype become too obvious to ignore.

It's the way her parents handle the situation that I found most touching. Books like this let me imagine how hard it must be to make choices for your kids that can have lasting effects for all of you. The book is also a nice reminder that you can be a very good parent and still make mistakes that might reverberate for many years.

If I make it sound like a depressing novel I'd like to make it clear that it's not. Calliope is the narrator, and through her voice we have a lot of empathy for the whole crew. There's hardly a bad guy in the group, even though some of them made bad choices. But the narrator has affection for her whole family, so we do too.

Eugenides understands young women so well I have a hard time believing he isn't one. He has a wonderful gift for getting into the heads of all of his characters and making each of them distinct. I'm still thinking about the family he created and wishing I could hear just a few more pages about them. There's nothing he left out...no holes that need to be filled. I just loved being with them and would like more time.