Monday, November 28, 2011

London to Grosse Point

The great thing about being on vacation is that, once the nieces and nephew zonk out around 8 or 8:30, I have plenty of time to read.

In the third Maisie Dobbs book, our heroine finally returns to France twelve years after her war injury. Two tough cases (both involving MIA soldiers from the Great War), coupled with her suppressed psychological trauma from the War itself, lead to a near-mental breakdown. (But, of course, she muddles through. As one does.) Two interesting developments for the series that I'll be curious to see in the next few books: that a breach of trust occurs between Maisie and her mentor, so she must start to learn to solve her most intellectually rigorous cases alone; and that since she finally returned to the now-graveyard scene of her greatest anguish, even after a decade she can hopefully start healing and moving on.

Books 4 and 5 are waiting for me at the library when I get back home.

But for now, one great thing about being on vacation in Michigan with a brother-in-law who teaches history is that there are tons of spare books in the basement. So I grabbed Middlesex, erroneously conflating it with both Atonement and March (also on the bookshelf).

Turns out, the books are very, very different. I haven't (yet) read the two I mentally confused with this one, but Middlesex is sheer, utter brilliance. Jeffrey Eugenides' novel about a hermaphrodite growing up in a changing Detroit is extremely well-written. The narrative voice pulls you in from the first couple of lines, hinting at intertwined family scandals and historical flashes and self-discovery spanning 70 years, all with teasing details that aren't fully revealed for several more chapters.

The book's genius is that it also draws on so much literary and historical richness: it starts on the slopes of Mount Olympus in 1922 and moves across violence and Depression to the streets of the Motor City. (Yes, I did feel like re-re-re-watching the Chrysler SuperBowl ad.) The protagonist's grandparents' flight from Smyrna also had me recalling the first vignette from Hemingway's In Our Time; and a chapter that involved the fledgling Nation of Islam had me running out to google-verify that it did, indeed, begin in Detroit. Storyline transitions in Middlesex flow from Old World to New, superstition to science, immigrant to assimilated, rags to (middle class) riches, rural to urban to suburban, east to west, parent to child, girl to boy... and the reader (at least this one) is left with an awe-inspiring, incredible, complex tapestry of overlapping identities, sexualities, and families.