It must be a testament to the brilliance of an author if they can write two books that bear no resemblance at all but are both completely brilliant. Jane Austen, John Green, Thomas Hardy – brilliant authors no question but their books are distinctly recognisable. They all share plot developments or settings or character traits. But I can think of absolutely nothing that links The Virgin Suicides to Middlesex.
This actually threw me off kilter a little at the start of it. When you buy a book based purely on the strength of the author you will obviously go into it with a preconceived idea of what it will be like. But where The Virgin Suicides had poetry, Middlesex had a strong plot. Where The Virgin Suicides was melancholic, Middlesex was funny. And where The Virgin Suicides left so many things unanswered, Middlesex had a definitive answer for everything, even when it went beyond the realms of possibility.
The novel tells the history of the remarkable set of genes which lead Cal, the narrator of the story, to be born a hermaphrodite. Starting in early 20th Century Turkey and ending in modern day Berlin the plot follows the courtship of his grandparents and parents, his own childhood growing up as Calliope and eventual discovery of the implications of what Cal terms ‘a rogue set of genes from the summit of Mount Olympus,’ interspersed with the experiences of modern day Cal. Essentially it’s a coming of age story. And that might sound like a pretty regular read, documenting not exactly regular experiences but relatable ones, but the narrative style keeps it fresh and like nothing I’ve ever read before. Cal shows an omniscient level of knowledge while at the same time breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader directly that he couldn’t possibly know these things.
I do have criticisms of this book. The title for one would have explained itself without the need for the Stephanides’ family home to be called Middlesex, which just felt clumsy. And although the book as a whole is brilliant, the first half sets a standard that the second half can’t quite live up to. But this is me being extremely picky.
I could just marvel all day long at the variety of styles and information that Jeffrey Eugenides includes in this book. Where else will you find anecdotes about little known presidential candidates, a display of detailed medical knowledge and a heartfelt history of an extinct Greek annexe?
If things being completely different and original can be a similarity then Middlesex is exactly like The Virgin Suicides.