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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex. The book sat on my shelf for 2.5 years unread with that provocative book title staring at me. Is it the name of a location? Or a tongue-in-cheek for the main hermaphrodite character? As I soon found out that the title meant both and also a very complex and it is clever book too. Surprising in many levels let’s start with the blurb:

“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.”

So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of 1967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Point, Michigan.

To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns her into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling. Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.

So an American epic it is. You and I know when we read a gem of a book. You find the right words to describe it and you don’t know where to start. You know that no matter what you write you will not do justice to the great book you have just finished reading. That’s just what Middlesex feels to me right now. I am speechless.

This is my first book by Jeffrey Eugenides. Discounting Eugenides being the editor of the collection of short stories titled My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead which I have it on my shelf, Eugenides doesn’t publish very frequently and to be exact only once every nine years. The gap between Virgin Suicides (1993) and Middlesex (2002), and now Middlesex to Marriage Plot (2011) is 9 years. From what I gather, every book that he wrote was a masterpiece in its own right and I can see why.  Eugenides writes like a intellectual with a naughty streak, stringing history seamlessly as far as the Greek Gods to current affairs, straight-laced medical body examination to sensual puberty exploration, Eugenides writes with mastery:

Inside my mother, a billion sperm swim upstream, makes in the lead. They carry not only instructions about eye colour, height, nose shape, enzyme production, microphage resistance, but a story, too. Against a back background they swim, a long white silken thread spinning itself out. The thread began on a day 250 years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby’s fifth chromosome. That baby passed the mutation on to her son, who passed it on to his two daughters, who passed it onto three of their children… – page 210

Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness”, “joy” or “regret”. Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplified feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “Intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “The hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever. I can’t just sit back and watch from a distance anymore. From here on in, everything I’ll tell you is coloured by the subjective experience of being part of events. Where’s where my story splits, divides, undergoes meiosis.  – page 217

I like the way references to a character were made with a nickname. Chapter Eleven, The Object (Obscure Object) etc. lends itself the credibility of seeing Calliope’s account as an intimate journal, one that even to disclose the name of the person is sacrosanct. Calliope life’s major turning point was her experience with the Obscure Object, in this passage let me demonstrates how imaginative and vivid Eugenides’ description of one characteristic with reference to something totally unrelated…..

Part of my interest was scientific, zoological. I‘d never seen a creature with so many freckles before. A Big Bang had occurred, originating at the bridge of her nose, and the force of this explosion had sent galaxies of freckles hurtling and drifting to every end of her curved, warm-blooded universe. There were clusters of freckles on her forearms and wrists, an entire Milky Way spreading across her forehead, even a few sputtering quasars flung into the wormholes of her ears. – page 323

The part that made me sad is when Calliope was subject to many examinations and the anxiety of her parents of her situation. Eugenides’ research on gender studies are formidable when writing about the difference and detailed medical research of gender. Dr. Luce’s medical report was totally credible in the context of this fictional work.

He watched my facial expressions; he noted my style of argument. Females tend to smile at their interlocutors more than males do. Females pause and look for signs of agreement before continuing. Males just look into the middle distance and hold forth. Women prefer the anecdotal, men the deductive. It was impossible to be in Dr. Luce’s line of work without falling back on such stereotypes. He knew their limitations. But they were clinically useful. – page 417

Inspirational quotes:

Real geniuses never think they’re geniuses. Because genius is nine-tenths perspiration. Haven’t you ever heard that? As soon as you think you’re a genius, you slack off. You think everything you do is so great and everything. – Calliope. Page 355.

Sex is biological. Gender is cultural. – Zora, page 489

The book surprises me at many levels. I didn’t expect it to be an immigrant story. I didn’t expect it to contain dark humour that made me sniggered. I didn’t expect the book to teach me a part of the American history. I didn’t expect it to be so sensual. I didn’t expect it to be so clever, containing many new words and medical jargons that went over my head. Most of all, I didn’t expect it to be a book about coming of age. I didn’t expect it to be family feud and the love and bonds between family and past generations of families. The ending was bitter-sweet.

This is a book that attempts to be many things and succeed to be all it sets out to be. I love everything in the book except leading up to the decadence of Calliope’s innocence at the last 90 pages which I thought have crossed the line and sullied the perfection of the story line so far.

Although Hermaphrodism is just one aspect of the book, it is the main theme and after reading Middlesex, any writings about Hermaphrodite that comes before and after this book will remain unoriginal to me. This one is a well deserved and entertaining Pulitzer Prize winner.

I’m reading this for my long neglected TBR challenge.

Paperback. Publisher: Bloomsbury 2003; Length: 529 pages; Setting: 1922 Bursa to 1976 America. Source: Own. Finished reading at: 26th December 2011.

Other views:

Bookie Mee: I can’t imagine anyone not liking the book. It’s an absolute masterpiece, in originality and writing. Admittedly it is quite long, but it’s definitely a journey worth taking.

Ti@bookchatter: I read this novel for my Contemporary Lit class and it was well-received by everyone. Even the non-readers in the class had something to say about this book and although I finished it weeks ago, I am still re-reading passages. It’s definitely one of my faves for 2010.

Sarah’s blog: I wish that Eugenides had done a little bit more with the ending. We leave Callie when she is just starting to become Cal and then we jump 20 years into the future and don’t really know that much about the in between. I’ll give the author one thing though, man does he know how to write subplots and surprises!

Did I miss you review? Let me know and I’ll add it in.

Have you read the book? What did you think about it?

About the writer:

Jeffrey Kent Eugenides (born March 8, 1960) was born in Detroit, Michigan, of Greek and Irish descent. He attended Grosse Pointe’s private University Liggett School. He took his undergraduate degree at Brown University, graduating in 1983. He later earned an M.A. in Creative Writing from Stanford University.
In 1986 he received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nicholl Fellowship for his story “Here Comes Winston, Full of the Holy Spirit.” His 1993 novel, The Virgin Suicides, gained mainstream interest with the 1999 film adaptation directed by Sofia Coppola. The novel was reissued in 2009.

Eugenides is reluctant to disclose details about his private life, except through Michigan-area book signings in which he details the influence of Detroit and his high-school experiences on his writings. He has said that he has “a perverse love” of his birthplace. “I think most of the major elements of American history are exemplified in Detroit, from the triumph of the automobile and the assembly line to the blight of racism, not to mention the music, Motown, the MC5, house, techno.” He also says he has been haunted by the decline of Detroit.

He lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with his wife, Karen Yamauchi, and their daughter, Georgia. In the fall of 2007, Eugenides joined the faculty of Princeton University’s Program in Creative Writing.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


14 thoughts on “Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

  1. Loved this one so much, as well as Virgin Suicides. He latest : Marriage Plot is very good, but not my favorite.

    Posted by Diane@BibliophileBytheSea | December 29, 2011, 2:08 am
  2. Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex has been high on my list of Books to Read but it’s been a challenge trying to get my hands on a copy thus far. After reading your review and excerpts, I think I’m gonna order a copy online instead of waiting for bookstores to stock them 🙂 So many good books to read, so little time !

    Posted by Joanna | December 29, 2011, 2:36 am
  3. I’ve often been struck by the lovely cover of the book but am less keen on the subject matter! Great review, though, and one that may convince me to give it a go, finally (too!).

    Posted by Maxine | December 29, 2011, 1:26 pm
    • Maxine,
      Interestingly the book is not all about the subject matter but rather a history of Detroit and the Greek Americans family. I think that lends the story multi-dimensional. I hope you will find at least something interesting to keep you reading it, when you do decided to read it that is!

      Posted by JoV | December 29, 2011, 5:09 pm
  4. So glad you enjoyed this one. I have yet to read his new book. That one, is not as well received.

    Posted by Ti | December 29, 2011, 5:42 pm
  5. A great book, I’ve read it years ago and was very impressed. I also read The Virgin Suicides and it made me depressed.
    Beautiful review, Jo, I’m glad you liked the book.

    Posted by Delia (Postcards from Asia) | December 30, 2011, 2:53 pm
  6. Lovely review of a book I have not read! I must read it now. An immigrant story; I did not know that either. Thanks for the review.

    Posted by Kinna | January 2, 2012, 8:27 am
  7. Interesting that it was many things that you didn’t expect it to be Jo. What did you expect, I’m curious? 🙂 Your quotes made me remember again how I loved his writing. Nice observation how he only publishes book every 9 years! Virgin Suicides has been on my shelf for a couple of years now. I hope to get to it this year.

    ps: just came back from a month long trip around Europe, sorry for the late reply!

    Posted by mee | January 20, 2012, 10:40 pm

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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