In Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides shows us tumultuous twentieth century America through the eyes of Callie, a hermaphrodite, as she discovers and struggles with a rare genetic inheritance that powerfully affects her body and her relationships with family and peers. Early in the story, Callie tells us that her grandparents crossed quite a boundary: they were brother and sister. I was in the earliest stages of my rough draft of Third Floor and knew right away that I had to read Middlesex.
Third Floor follows the lives of twins, precocious Rachel and withdrawn Joseph, starting with their creation of an upstairs harbor of escape from the frights of their home. In doing so, they approach the same taboo that determined Callie’s fate. They make choices that set them on separate journeys of self-discovery through the same decades Callie navigates as she struggles to find the nature that is truly hers.
Middlesex was not the first book about siblings that came to me as I began my project. Two more were Jonathon Franzen’s Corrections and Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone. Both deal with siblings struggling in a troubled family in a troubled land. For Franzen it is two brothers and a sister dealing with the dramatic decline of their ailing father and the troubling response of their mother. For Verghese it is Siamese twin brothers who were successfully separated but continue to feel like one. There was a boundary at its heart: the identity of their mother and father. I took the similarity of these characters’ struggles to my Rachel and Joseph in Third Floor as confirmation of my need to write the story of the consequences of their choices and those of their parents. I got the same confirmation for Boundaries, my completed novel of a lawyer and client making serious mistakes born of passion and attachment. The implications of dwelling on ethical and moral edges seem to be an itch I often scratch in my work.
At the beginning of Third Floor, Rachel and Joseph, seven-year-old twins, are frightened by their parents’ nighttime fights that spill into the upstairs hallway. On an especially bad night, Rachel escapes to the third floor, taking her Big Ben alarm clock, her mother’s Chanukah candles from the pantry, and sheets from her mother’s carefully managed the hall closet. She sets up a bed on a foam pad and covers it with a quilt from the cedar chest and waits for Joseph to figure out why she didn’t answer his taps on the wall. They share their first night together. In the weeks that follow, Rachel takes the lead in creating a haven on the third floor. Walter, their father, discovers their secret. Fearing the consequences of his wife Marjorie’s wrath, always protective of his children, he keeps their secret for years as they grow even closer. In their early teens, their parents discover how far the twins have taken their affection and dependency. Their fragile family life tumbles into ruin. With this as their given foundation, the twins must find their way in contemporary America.
Like the authors I’ve mentioned here, I love to address how good people deal with moral dilemmas of their own creation. I look for the resiliency of the human spirit as I follow my nose into difficult territory. You may see selections from the rough draft of Third Floor and from my completed works when they might fit well in our conversations. In the meantime, I would enjoy hearing whatever this post brings to mind for you from your experience, your reading, and if you write, that, too. After all, at times in our lives most of us come to boundaries we shouldn’t cross and face choices that could affect our lives and the lives of others in serious ways.