Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2003) 529 p.

“I 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.”

Thus begins Middlesex, a book about gender and identity, following the life of Calliope Stephanides, a third-generation Greek immigrant who is born a hermaphrodite. She is raised as a girl, and life goes well enough until she reaches puberty, when the usual teenage problems come with additional complications that change her – his – life forever.

Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer prize, and a good deal of it follows an immigrant family’s adaptation to America over several generations, played out against a backdrop of 20th century history. As far as I can tell this is Pulitzer paydirt. The story begins with Cal’s grandparents fleeing the burning of Smyrna in 1922, taking a ship to America, and settling down in Detroit. Henry Ford’s auto factories, Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, and the social upheaval of the 1960s (including an excellent depiction of the Detroit race riots) all play out in predictable fashion, and to some extent it feels like Eugenides is following a formula. But he follows this formula so well that the reader never minds, and he won himself a Pulitzer for it, so good for him. In fact, many of the novels most compelling story threads have nothing to do with Cal at all, but rather with her parents and grandparents.

Eugenides weave a compelling story, and his prose is excellent – not quite as good as Michael Chabon or David Mitchell, but certainly in the same league. Middlesex is one of the finest novels I have read this year, and a worthy recipient of the Pulitzer.