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Middlesex: A Novel Paperback – September 16, 2003

4.3 out of 5 stars 1,789 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"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." And so begins Middlesex, the mesmerizing saga of a near-mythic Greek American family and the "roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time." The odd but utterly believable story of Cal Stephanides, and how this 41-year-old hermaphrodite was raised as Calliope, is at the tender heart of this long-awaited second novel from Jeffrey Eugenides, whose elegant and haunting 1993 debut, The Virgin Suicides, remains one of the finest first novels of recent memory.

Eugenides weaves together a kaleidoscopic narrative spanning 80 years of a stained family history, from a fateful incestuous union in a small town in early 1920s Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit; from the early days of Ford Motors to the heated 1967 race riots; from the tony suburbs of Grosse Pointe and a confusing, aching adolescent love story to modern-day Berlin. Eugenides's command of the narrative is astonishing. He balances Cal/Callie's shifting voices convincingly, spinning this strange and often unsettling story with intelligence, insight, and generous amounts of humor:

Emotions, in my experience aren't covered by single words. I don't believe in "sadness," "joy," or "regret." … I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, "the happiness that attends disaster." Or: "the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy." ... 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.

When you get to the end of this splendorous book, when you suddenly realize that after hundreds of pages you have only a few more left to turn over, you'll experience a quick pang of regret knowing that your time with Cal is coming to a close, and you may even resist finishing it--putting it aside for an hour or two, or maybe overnight--just so that this wondrous, magical novel might never end. --Brad Thomas Parsons --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

As the Age of the Genome begins to dawn, we will, perhaps, expect our fictional protagonists to know as much about the chemical details of their ancestry as Victorian heroes knew about their estates. If so, Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides) is ahead of the game. His beautifully written novel begins: "Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study, 'Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites.' " The "me" of that sentence, "Cal" Stephanides, narrates his story of sexual shifts with exemplary tact, beginning with his immigrant grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty. On board the ship taking them from war-torn Turkey to America, they married-but they were brother and sister. Eugenides spends the book's first half recreating, with a fine-grained density, the Detroit of the 1920s and '30s where the immigrants settled: Ford car factories and the tiny, incipient sect of Black Muslims. Then comes Cal's story, which is necessarily interwoven with his parents' upward social trajectory. Milton, his father, takes an insurance windfall and parlays it into a fast-food hotdog empire. Meanwhile, Tessie, his wife, gives birth to a son and then a daughter-or at least, what seems to be a female baby. Genetics meets medical incompetence meets history, and Callie is left to think of her "crocus" as simply unusually long-until she reaches the age of 14. Eugenides, like Rick Moody, has an extraordinary sensitivity to the mores of our leafier suburbs, and Cal's gender confusion is blended with the story of her first love, Milton's growing political resentments and the general shedding of ethnic habits. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about this book is Eugenides's ability to feel his way into the girl, Callie, and the man, Cal. It's difficult to imagine any serious male writer of earlier eras so effortlessly transcending the stereotypes of gender. This is one determinedly literary novel that should also appeal to a large, general audience.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 529 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (September 16, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312422156
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312422158
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,789 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #314,090 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Debbie Lee Wesselmann TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 25, 2003
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback
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!
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By A Customer on September 8, 2002
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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