I was born twice.” These are the first words of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel Middlesex, and they did two things for me. First, they forced me to read the next sentence. I had no other option. I had to know what the character was talking about. Second, I thought he might be talking about some kind of conversion to Christianity. You know, like being born-again. It wasn’t. At least not directly.
This book is about an innersex person—a person born with both male and female reproductive parts—and the two generations of the family before her. As a victim of an incestuous Greek family (I know this sounds strange at the moment, but keep reading), Cal (formerly Callie) grows up in ignorance about her dual sexuality. She grows up a girl. Yet when she learns later in life that she was born with both reproductive parts, she makes a transition from a she to a he—which he finds is his natural and true identity.
It is, without a doubt, one of the strangest books I have ever read. It’s also, without a doubt, one of the best books I have ever read. It even supplanted To Kill A Mockingbird for the number two spot on my top ten list.
On hearing what it is about, I am afraid that most Christians might shy away from it. I mean, being about incest and sex change, what good could it actually have in it, right? If this is your first reaction, fight it. If you pass on this book, you’ll miss out on a better understanding of renewal and recreation that Christians participate in in their conversion. That first line might not be talking directly about a Christian rebirth, but the overtones undeniably apply to Christians—helping us understand what our identity in Christ is now that each of us are a new creation.
Writing Worth Reading
While this book is about an incestuous Greek family who produces an innersex child, it is, obviously, about so much more. This same family flees Greece after being caught in a massive fire that burns down their entire town. It is about that same family coming to America and learning how to live and pursue the American Dream. It makes you feel the racial tensions during and after the civil rights movement. It is about immigration, family, gender, identity, and rebirth. It is one of the deepest and most compelling novels I’ve ever laid my hands on.
Middlesex proves that Jeffrey Eugenides is an absolute master. He is one of those authors I constantly curse because he is such a good writer. He had me verbally upset with him at times because I was jealous of how well he could write a sentence or how that sentence led the reader into some greater truth about a character. I was (and still am) tempted to write to Eugenides, asking him if I could be his slave for a few years and just watch what he does, how he writes—an offer that still stands if you’re reading this, Mr. Eugenides.
His writing makes up only half of his genius. I find that with many authors there’s a disparity between telling good stories and telling them in compelling ways. Many of the best stories are told by okay authors. While many of the best authors tell lousy stories.
Take Marilynne Robinson, for example. Her stories put me to sleep faster than a full glass of Nyquil, but her writing keeps me awake for days. I could read her novels nonstop, sapping in all the glory she packs in one sentence, even though her books are about nothing.
It is to an author’s glory when they can find the balance between being a great writer—a truly great writer—and having a great story. If a truly good author is lucky, they will come upon a truly good story once in their life. I think of what the novel All The Light We Cannot See did for me in combining good writing with a great story, and I fawn over it. My favorite novel, The Poisonwood Bible (the number one spot on my top ten list), has this rare combination and it makes such a tragic and amazing story even more beautiful. As I sit here and think about how the writing was so gorgeous I immediately want to riffle through my bookshelf and read it again.
A rare number of books have what it takes to draw me back to the bookshelf for their story and their sentences. Middlesex is one of those books. Eugenides is one of those authors.
Parallels of a New Creation
All over this book there are transitions, renewals, rebirths. The first two characters we meet are Desdemona and Lefty, a brother and sister from a tiny village who end up marrying each other. This is the first rebirth: they must stop thinking about each other as brother and sister and start thinking of each other as husband and wife.
These two characters next flee Smyrna because of a great fire and move to America. This is rebirth number two. The new couple is now forced out of their home and into a place where they only know one person. An unwilling rebirth, if you will.
The next rebirth is when their children, Cal’s eventual parents, are Americanized and slowly leave their Greek heritage behind in pursuit of the American Dream.
And, of course, the greatest rebirth of the story comes when Cal discovers that he is physically both male and female, and he makes the decision to transition to a male, neglecting the advice of his doctor and parents.
All of these new beginnings are synonymous with the Christian life. In the same way, Christians had to undergo a radical change in their life when God rescued them from the dominion of darkness and transferred them to the kingdom of God’s Son. When a Christian becomes a new person they must then take on an entirely new identity, which then shapes the rest of their life. Just by reading this book I gained a greater understanding of the transition each Christian undergoes and how much that ought to change them, how much it should change me.
There is so much gospel in this novel. But I’m afraid Christians will simply judge the book by its cover and not take a plunge into its depths to see what can be redeemed from an incestuous family.
A Novel for Us All
Middlesex not only helped me understand my own regeneration, but it also helped put a face on gender issues. It made me sympathize with the desire to change from male to female. You should read this novel if only to better understand the gender identity issues that are facing people today. If nothing else, it will give you greater empathy and compassion to anyone who has to go through something like that.
Eugenides nails everything. I would gladly go to work for him for years just to learn from him—how he can write such good sentences and how he can understand human life so well. Eugenides has written the Great American Novel—and it’s about a Greek family.
 Douglas Wilson once said of her novel Home that “it’s a cliffhanger and nail-biter in which absolutely nothing happens.”
 Please note that I said synonymous and not equal to.
Cover image by Oscar Keys.