From the first sentence of Jeffrey Eugenides' MIDDLESEX, I was hooked by this complicated tale of a young girl who grows into a man. The story of Cal Stephanides begins generations before his birth, in a small Greek village, when his grandparents succumb to incestuous desires. Immigration to the United States keeps Desdemona and Lefty's secret intact - until their grandchild Cal reaches puberty. Told with both humor and earnestness, the story grows more engaging with every page.
The brilliance of this book emerges not from the superficial story of a hermaphrodite but from the context - historical, scientific, psychological, political, geographical - of Cal's birth and subsequent rebirth. MIDDLESEX is about much more than gender confusion. Cal's mixed gender can be taken as a metaphor for the experience of first- and second-generations born of immigrants.
While the context of this story provides the substance, the characters provide the vibrancy. Cal emerges as a reliable and likeable narrator. He is sensible, good-humored, and intelligent. The spectrum of his experiences provides a smooth transition between childhood and adult, enabling the reader to embrace the character as both male and female. Cal's family is affectionately portrayed, even with their failings. (Cal's brother, Chapter Eleven, annoyed me with his name, a running gag, but even he ended up a full-blooded character by the end.)
Eugenides has written an expansive, compelling book. Despite its length of over 500 pages, the novel is not a slow read - unless the reader wants it to be, to make it last. Accessible, intelligent, well-paced and plotted, it should appeal to a wide range of readers.
I can't recommend this novel highly enough.
on April 25, 2005
No need to repeat previous reviews on one fact: Eugenides is a remarkably gifted writer. I was hesitant to pick this up at first due to the bizarre subject matter, but my fears were put to rest instantly, for a couple reasons:
1) the novel cannot be so narrowly defined as simply being about a hermaphrodite; it's about the American dream; racism; finding oneself; the difficulties and confusing emotions of adolescence; politics; the inextricable link between history and each human being affecting and being affected by it... put simply, it's about life. And:
2) Eugenides' writing style is so descriptive and engaging that the reader is transported directly into the mind of the narrator, making the fact that Callie happens to be a hermaphrodite almost irrelevant--she/he is just a normal person with a slightly unusual body.
By the end of Book 3 I was convinced this was the best book I ever read. And then I read Book 4, the last 100 pages, and felt cheated, robbed somehow of the magic of the first 400 pages. The novel takes an exceedingly far-fetched and rambling turn; it is almost palpable that Eugenides was getting pressure from the publisher to wrap things up and rushed through the end of the book without really thinking through a satisfying conclusion. The writing style falls apart; the descriptiveness and magic is gone, and the story degenerates into a rather plain narrative of a freak's life. The real heart of the matter, how a seemingly normal person who happens to be a hermaphrodite copes with the discovery, never comes, and the 25 years of Callie's life between end of story and beginning of narration are never explained. Eugenides almost gives in to the freak factor by the end, leaving the reader with the lingering sensation upon finishing the book that Callie is merely a circus sideshow.
So, proportional to the number of pages that I thought this book was great, it gets 4 out of 5 stars from me. Almost but not quite!
on March 31, 2003
I found much of this book quite enjoyable, but ended up feeling that Eugenides had not quite lived up to his promise.
The novel follows three generations of the Stephanides family, and it faces a general problem with such multigenerational works --it's hard to get the reader deeply involved in the lives of the grandparents, then put these characters aside and transfer one's interest to the parents, and then finally to make a third transfer of interest to the children.
Eugenides succeeded in getting me interested in the grandparents (Desdemona and Lefty), their escape from Turkey, and their life in America. But the second generation, Milton and Tessie, was less compelling. Milton becomes a cliche'd Archie Bunker sort of character, and Tessie isn't well-developed at all. They are not very interesting or memorable characters, and we spend way too much time with them.
Cal/Callie's story is fascinating, but it seems to end far too soon. The book ends shortly after s/he has discovered and accepted her transgendered nature at age 15. But the narrator is roughly 40, and we don't get to learn anything about the intervening 25 years. How did Cal get from being a newly discovered boy to being a diplomat in Germany? What was his life like in the intervening years? And what is it like now?
There are real flashes of brilliance in this book, but ultimately I was disappointed and feel that it doesn't come together.
on September 8, 2002
Having loved Eugenides's previous work, The Virgin Suicides, I waited patiently through the 1990s for a follow-up. When I was fortunate enough to snag an advance copy of Middlesex earlier this year, I expected nothing short of perfection from the author, and this novel met my expectations in every possible way. For the past few months, all I have been doing is telling people to buy this book upon its release; it's one of those rare literary novels that one can nevertheless recommend to just about any type of reader. From the very beginning, Middlesex draws the reader into its world; the narrator, Cal, formerly Calliope, Stephanides, is a hermaphrodite living as a man despite being raised as a woman. The major story within the novel is how Cal came to be (I won't ruin the fun for readers by going into detail), but along the way Middlesex discusses the Greek Diaspora following the first world war, incest, immigration, assimilation (and its rejection), racial relations, politics, and coming of age in the 1970s. Normally, one would expect such a densely packed novel to suffer under its own weight, but I found that the opposite was true; certain stories (e.g. Desdemona's brief time with the Nation of Islam) leave the reader wanting more, but the novel moves on. Eugenides is one of the most talented writers working today, and Middlesex is a novel that is accessible, funny, interesting, emotional, and, as other reviewers have indicated, thoroughly engrossing. This is one of the best works of contemporary literature I have read in quite some time.
on November 26, 2002
Though Middlesex's leading man(Cal)/lady(Callie) is a hermaphrodite, the book spends only a few of its pages exploring what it is like to view, or experience, the world from the perspective of both sexes at once. So if this is what you are looking for in the book, you will surely be disappointed. Rather, the book's principal theme is more universal: how little control we have over who we become. Eugenides narrative skillfully reveals how but for this or that event, each of his characters would not be who they are. For example, Cal/Callie would not have been born a hermaphrodite but for her paternal great-grandparents' deaths, her paternal grandfather not having any other attractive woman to marry, a massacre in Turkey, her maternal grandfather's jealousy and doubts of paternity, World War II, etc. The book uses silk cocoons as a metaphor for the tangled histories that make us all who were are, an unwinding string that goes back far beyond our expectations. Though, as one reaches the last quarter of the book, the disparate strands of silk spin together, explaining Cal/Callie's decision to run away and the intertwined fate of her father. I had read this book a couple of month's after reading Gaille's The Law Review, which grappled with this same problem of how much control we have over where we wind up. One passage from that book also rings true for Eugenides' characters in Middlesex, too: "Decision. I think decision itself is a misnomer. It implies that a choice existed for me at the final moment. More often than not, though, one becomes embroiled in adversity not from a single bad decision, but rather from a series of little decisions that were fine when they were made." Such is the fate of us all.
Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex" belongs to the sprawling intergenerational book genre, but he explores themes with a fresh perspective. Calliope (later Cal) is the omniscient narrator of a story that begins in 1922 Smyrna, Asia Minor and ends almost 80 years later in Berlin. Most of the story takes place in Detroit, a city that he describes with great insight and emotion. Eugenides expertly switches between the voices of the grown-up Cal and the young Calliope; therefore, we experience events as Calliope did, but with the perspective of Cal (at age 40). Calliope is a winning storyteller, observant, funny, and with realistic childhood and adolescent feelings. Throughout the book, Eugenides demonstrates that Callie's circumstances underlie experiences shared by all: Pain, love, confusion, feelings of being both the same as and different from. I think Eugenides somewhat underestimates the emotional toll that Callie's journey would entail, particularly during her long separation from her family as she makes the psychological transformation from Calliope to Cal. Usually; however, the insights and feelings are so true that it reads like an autobiography.
While the story is compelling, there are some problems that interfere with a fluid read. At times, narrative transitions are handled awkwardly through either through over use of ellipses (...) or with somewhat clunky sentences: 'Milton stepped on the gas, ignoring the scarcity not only of petroleum but of many other things as well,' which breaks into a long list of scarce hope, food, phone calls, clean socks, etc. He also overplays his hand at the Greek tragic motif he is constructing ('Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation'!'; though he later, in apparent contradiction, concludes that we can forge our own truer identities) and in his broad caricatures of ethnic and religious types. There's also a sly quality that sets up "surprise" situations: In the most egregious case of 'magical realism,' or just plain gimmickry, Eugenides uses the conceit of using his fictional character 'Jimmy Zizmo' as the 'real' identity of the actual character, Nation of Islam Muslim founder W.D. Farr, and the denouement concerning Calliope's father and uncle lacks credibility. Mostly though, Eugenides' story is compelling and humorous, and he masterfully evokes place and character (industrial Detroit; a hilarious indictment of an ultra-hip 1970s-era surgeon/sexologist), with a casual ease that nicely belies the serious themes.
The book bears some resemblance to Michael Chabon's own Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." In both, the immigrant experience and the forging of a new identity are central, characters journey to find their own "American dream," and urban settings help shape their lives. While Chabon is the more nimble phrase writer, Eugenides is similarly poignant and symbolic. Like Chabon, Eugenides uses metaphor (based on reality) as he explores the ideas of being 'different,' the sometimes-artificial nature of boundaries, and the Greek notion of fate. It is an entertaining and often moving story that, despite some minor annoyances, I recommend very highly.
Reading a novel about a hermaphrodite is something I never thought I would enjoy, but I was wrong. Middlesex is an excellent book. Jeffery Eugenides is a talented and insightful writer. He describes how Greek immigrants of both sexes had to work hard to survive in Detroit in the early part of the 20th century. Lefty is a fictional character in the novel. I loved reading about how hard he worked to improve his life. He started working at a factory making car engines, and he worked diligently to become a successful bar owner. Eugenidies' description of the race riots in Detroit in 1967 is very vivid. I could picture people looting shops and setting them on fire. I have no idea how a hermaphrodite feels, and I think Eugenides does a good job writing about how it feels to live as one. The main character is a hermaphrodite named Callie. Eugenides writes about Callie's confusion and frustration about not developing like other girls as a teenager. This is very moving. He also writes about her experiences with drugs and having sexual relations with a female classmate. Middlesex is very much a coming of age novel because of the self exploration element. I enjoyed reading how Callie's parents loved and treated her unconditionally. Middlesex is a novel that reminds people to accept and embrace individuals with gender differences.
on August 19, 2007
I sometimes begin a novel knowing pretty much what to expect from it. I'm either familiar enough with the author that its style doesn't surprise me or I've somehow already picked up enough information about its plot that the book holds few surprises other than its details. Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, was definitely an exception to the rule because this was my first Eugenides novel (it's his second novel) and I had heard nothing at all about its plot.
Middlesex is a complicated novel of more than 500 pages, the multi-generational story of the Stephenides family who fled to America in the early 1920s for its very survival. At the core of this family saga is the fact that two members of the family, brother and sister, arrived in America as husband and wife, something that was to genetically impact the book's narrator and main character, Calliope Stephenides, who was born a hermaphrodite in 1960 Detroit. The novel's opening line sets the stage for the rest of the book:
"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."
Everything about Calliope's birth appeared normal to the attending Greek doctor and his nurse and for the first 14 years of her/his life Calliope was raised as the girl whom she appeared to be. Things suddenly changed for her after she reached puberty and an emergency room doctor recognized that Calliope was, in fact, not the girl she thought she was.
Eugenides fills each generation of the Stephenides family with memorable characters from the moment that Desdemona and Lefty are forced to abandon everything and flee to America to the point at which Calliope Stephenides finally becomes Cal Stephenides. Their story typifies the experience of many immigrant families who came to the United States in the early years of the twentieth century. We watch as Lefty and Desdemona, guarding the secret of their marriage all the while, struggle to gain an economic foothold in Detroit that will allow them to carve out a good life for themselves and their children in their new world. It wasn't always easy for them but, by the time their grandchildren are born, Lefty and Desdemona can look with pride at the American family that they have created.
Middlesex is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, one that I expected both to be impressed by and to enjoy. And to a large degree that is what happened. But the novel did not quite work for me and I found it difficult at times to "believe" some of the characters or plot twists, especially the easy transition that Calliope made in becoming Cal. I found it hard to believe that a person who had been raised female for the entire 14 years of her life could so easily, and so suddenly, take on the persona of a teenage male. But, putting my minor quibbles aside, I do think that Middlesex is a book worth reading and I have a feeling that it has the makings of becoming a favorite book of lots of readers.
My friend recommended this book, and so far he's never been wrong when he gives a title his thumbs-up. Beginning with the first sentence, I knew I couldn't put it down. It's funny, poignant, distressing, and fascinating. The characters are so finely crafted; my favorite is Desdemona, the narrator's grandma. She's so melodramatic and sweet, buffeted along by huge current, and personal, events. ("Bring yia-yia Epsom salts, honey mou.")
The narrator, Calliope/Cal, is born with a genetic abnormality that causes a specific type of hermaphroditism. Cal begins life as the long-awaited and beloved daughter of a first-generation Greek couple living in Detroit. The book, which other reviewers have justifiably called "Homeric," traces Cal's journey toward self-acceptance, and manhood.
This is the kind of book that keeps you sitting up nights, just until you finish the next chapter.
on April 17, 2004
I wasn't enthusiastic about reading this book. I'd found "Virgin Suicides" good but slight and rather depressing. The blurb led me to think it it might crude pornography about a transvestite, like "Myra Breckenbridge" (not that I don't think Vidal is great) and finally I was put off by learning that it was a panorama of twentieth history - when I want history I read history books.
Anyway it found its way into my house the way books do, and I did not put it down after I'd started. Some of the quotations in the trade reviews give an idea of the quality of the writing. Such a commonplace event as taking the bus through the Lincoln Tunnel is magnificiently done "...through the long yellow-lit dizzy tunnel that led to New Jersey. Going underground through the rock, with the filthy river bottom above us, and fish swimming in the black water on the other side of the curving tiles."
The Detroit ambience is terrific, and the characteristics of each city, Smyrna, Bursa, San Francisco, New York and Berlin are deftly nailed. The history lesson is not just about the events, but is subtle and insightful about the changes in sexual mores from nineteenth centtury Turkey to 21st century Germany.
The medical details are accurate. (...) The bizarre endocrinologist at New York Hospital is based on the Johns Hopkins psychologist skewered in "As Nature Made Him."