Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2007 | Reviews

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

By Margaret LeMay-Lewis

Margaret LeMay-Lewis, 01MFA, coordinator of the UI Carver College of Medicine's writing program, explains why she remains inspired and haunted by one of her favorite books, Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides (Picador).

What's it about?

One of the reasons Middlesex affects me so deeply is that a single answer to this question never seems sufficient. In summary, the novel is about three generations of a Greek-American family, including a hermaphrodite child who "was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." Such a topic may initially seem limited, but Middlesex explores division and reconciliation in a wide world -- Greeks and Turks, Europe and the United States, blacks and whites, childhood and adulthood, urban life and suburban life, and males and females.

Why did it have such an impact on you?

The book's magic lies in how it relates the story of almost 100 years of family history. Alongside the Stephanides family, the reader lives through war in Asia Minor, the journey to Ellis Island, the advent of the assembly line, the Detroit riots, and the agonies of private junior high school. Part heroic epic, part a personal account of adolescence, part tragedy, part comedy, the book examines places that are themselves sites of contemporary transformation, such as Berlin, and characters such as the metamorphosing prophet Tiresias and the half-man, half-bull Minotaur.

When did you first read it?

I have revisited the novel many times since first reading it in 2004. Thematically, Middlesex is a fitting book to discuss in a medical environment, such as the elective class on literature, writing, and medicine that I offer UI medical students and physicians. But the primary reason I continue to teach it -- and read it with pleasure before every class -- is that Middlesex is an amazing artistic accomplishment. Whether a cinematic time-lapse account of eggs being prepared in a diner, an entirely imaginary account of flying a car, or a new way of understanding the term "narrative thread," something inspires me each time.

What would you tell people to encourage them to read it?

Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2003. The sheer scope of the novel is impressive, but it's also down-to-earth and often quite hilarious. Finally, Middlesex reveals that none of us is easily classifiable; that our multifaceted nature makes us human.