Q&A With Jeffery Eugenides
I have been an absolute fanatic about this book for about five years now. As a part-time library clerk, full-time second-hand bookstore owner and overtime avid reader, I am constantly recommending Middlesex to other readers—but I can't ever say what it is about because it is so epic in scope. I usually end up saying something like, "Well, the flap copy says it is about a hermaphrodite—but it's really not..." Not the best description to get others to read it! I am curious how you explained this book (prior to its current status) to those who asked what it was about?
— Jessica F.
I share your pain. I've always had a difficult time explaining the book in a sentence—or even a paragraph.
The best thing to do is to get people to read the first 50 pages and let things take care of themselves. If pressed, I say that Middlesex is the story of a family with a genetic mutation in its bloodline. The book is told by the final inheritor of this gene, who traces the recessive mutation down through three generations. True, the mutation in question results in the narrator's being intersex—labeled as female at birth, he later adopts a male identity. The novel itself, however, concerns a welter of events aside from his own sexual transformation. Rather, Cal's transformation makes him suited, intellectually and emotionally, to tell these other tales of metamorphosis, be they national, racial, or historical.
Middlesex is a hybrid itself: part immigrant saga, part psychological novel, part comic epic, part medical mystery. Of course, I never thought in these terms while I was writing the book. They may serve as useful handles, but any notion of genre is anathema to me as a writer. That's why the books I write are so difficult to pigeonhole.
I've had to rely on people like you, Jessica (and now, happily, on Oprah, too) who've read the book and know what it's "really" about to serve as its ambassadors in the world.
— Jeffrey Eugenides