Dark, Deep, and Dreamy: A Review of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Novels ‘Middlesex’ and ‘The Marriage Plot’

Jeffrey Eugenides’s novels transform the mundane into the extraordinary.

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“Jeffrey Eugenides’ writing style is decorated with detail, haunted with mystery, and exemplifies the complexity of the human mind and experience,” said Sela Emery ’23.

The American writer Jeffrey Eugenides’ novels Middlesex and The Marriage Plot serve as a formidable pair of novels, each one presenting an atmospheric, detail-packed world centered around the theme of coming of age. 

Middlesex is Eugenides’s second novel which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2003. Middlesex is more lengthy and well-researched than his debut novel. It displays a new dimension of Eugenides’s talent for storytelling while still perpetuating themes of coming-of-age and self-discovery (found in his first novel), along with the conflict between destiny and free will. 

Middlesex is a family saga that chronicles the “roller coaster ride of a single gene” and its impact upon three generations of a Greek-American family, ultimately leading to the question of whether Cal, the protagonist, is a girl or a boy. This life and potentially gender-altering gene begins its journey in Smyrna in 1922 with Lefty and Desdemonda, siblings who fall in love. After escaping the Turks who set fire to their hometown, the pair marry in Detroit. 

As the family establishes their own business, Desdemonda begins to worry that she has committed a grave sin by marrying Lefty and that their children will be born as hybrids like minotaurs with monstrous deformities. To her great shock, her son Milton is born with rosy cheeks, five fingers and toes, and no hint of an inner monster. It is Milton’s daughter, Cal – originally Callie – who is fated to suffer at the hands of the silent gene and become the living embodiment of Desdemonda’s guilt.

Even before she is born, Cal’s gender is an issue of hot debate. Milton uses pseudo-scientific methods for timing ovulation which he believes ensure his wife, Tessie, will have a girl. On the other hand, after Desdemonda hangs a silver spoon tied to a string over the belly of her daughter-in-law, she concludes that the baby is a boy. In the end, neither is correct; nobody could truly predict the power of a mutated gene in challenging the conventionally binary notion of gender. 

Although Cal was born as Callie, a girl, she is confused when she develops a moustache at the beginning of puberty and when her heart flutters at the sight of the girl next door, Clementine Stark. Later consultation with a doctor reveals that Callie is a sufferer of 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome, which means she is intersex. As a result, Callie has to make a decision to either undergo surgery and hormone treatments in order to secure a female identity or allow herself to be a male. Callie makes the bold decision to become Cal and runs away to San Francisco.

In true Greek fashion, Eugenides narrates the novel through the lens of both the mutated gene, which represents fate, and from Cal’s perspective, which embodies free will, given that he has the choice to decide his gender. Middlesex is a rich literary treasure that provides gems within each page and with its overall plotline.

Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot is his most recent and contemporary novel concerning the love lives, careers, and entrances into adulthood of three Brown graduates: Madeleine, Mitchell, and Leonard. The novel paints an intimate portrait of Madeleine’s struggles as an aspiring writer, Mitchell’s spiritual awakening, and Leonard’s incredible intelligence and debilitating depression. Moreover, Eugenides narrates the love triangle between the three characters with Madeleine’s undying devotion to Leonard on one end of the spectrum and her love for Mitchell’s attention on the other. 

This novel matches Middlesex in its ability to connect readers with characters, and yet it conveys less of a message or central theme than the earlier work. This novel is a lighter read, unplagued by the theme of identity crisis, as with Middlesex. Moreover, The Marriage Plot produces less uniquely individual characters. Despite all of the time and energy that he invests into religious exploration, Mitchell dismisses it in favor of his desire for Madeleine, and despite all of the personal sacrifices that she makes, Madeleine chooses to nurse Leonard through his depression.

Overall, Jeffrey Eugenides has an incredible storytelling gift, and both of these novels showcase his skills. Both books challenge societal norms, inspire people, and are equally beautiful and bold.

Overall, Jeffrey Eugenides has an incredible storytelling gift and both of these novels showcase his skills. Both books challenge societal norms, inspire people, and are equally beautiful and bold.

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