"Middlesex" is Eugenides' second novel, after his exquisitely melancholic and nostalgic debut "The Virgin Suicides", one of the great debuts of the 1990s.
This is a much more expansive piece of work, a recounting of three generations of the close knit Stephanides family by Cal, now 41 and living in Berlin as a man, but earlier in life Calliope, the daughter of Milton and Tessie. S/he is one of the reasons for the title of the book, the other being that it is the name of the house where s/he grew up in Detroit, Michigan.
It begins by following the escape of Lefty and Desdemona, Cal's grandparents, from a Greece under siege by the Turks through the burning of Smyrna and follows them as they settle in a booming prohibition Detroit. Lefty, after a brief spell working for Ford, takes full advantage of the lack of liquor to make his fortune.
Their son, Milton, serves in World War Two, causing his parents much anguish, and then takes over the family business. So far, so all-American.
The tone does change when Calliope becomes the main focus of the book, especially when s/he reaches puberty and her relationship with a girl from her private school referred to only as the Object (as in Object of Desire).
Like Rick Moody in "The Ice Storm", Eugenides creates an acutely observed '60s and '70s America, documenting the effect on the family of the 1967 Detroit riots and their life in suburban Grosse Pointe once they move into Middlesex.
The family saga is a well worn genre, and it takes a special writer to bring some freshness to it as Eugenides does. "Middlesex" has influences; the early sections could have been written by Garcia Marquez as there are so many quirky touches and a broadly comic tone is maintained for much of the novel which reminded me of his transatlantic contemporary Zadie Smith. Eugenides' prose, so remarkable in "The Virgin Suicides", shines here once again.
The only slightly disappointing thing, and its no reflection on what is still a very fine novel, is that I recall thinking while I was reading "The Virgin Suicides" that it felt quite unique. In taking a well worn path, "Middlesex" was missing that.
I'm not sure it is worthy of a Pulitzer (it won in 2003) but it is a very fine novel.
There was one thing I didn't understand