Spanning eight decades and chronicling the wild ride of a Greek-American family through the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, Jeffrey Eugenides' novel on one level tells a traditional story about three generations of an immigrant family -- blessed and cursed with generous doses of tragedy and high comedy. But there's a provocative twist. Cal, the narrator -- also Callie -- is an hermaphrodite. And the explanation for this takes us spooling back in time, through a breathtaking review of the twentieth century, to 1922, when the Turks sacked Smyrna and Callie's grandparents fled for their lives. Back to a tiny village in Asia Minor where two lovers, and one rare genetic mutation, set our narrator's life in motion.
Cal, born Callipe, tells his story: he seemed to be a girl when he was born, and was raised as such, then turned out at puberty to be a man whose sexual organs did not develop normally.
One of the main characteristic of this book is that the narrator takes his time with this story: instead of telling only the facts linked with his condition, he begins by telling the events which led to his conception, then goes back to tell about his grand-parents (he has a hereditary recessive genetic anomaly, and therefore he unwinds the story of his family, and the same-family marriages that happened), then comes back to his birth, and throughout the book he strolls in this way in the family history. This narrative style made me think about Love in the time of cholera: you wait for a specific event, but in the end something else is told before it, but it is not frustrating and you are able to enjoy the ride even if you don't quite know where it's leading and when you'll get there.
The other thing I really liked is that a lot of details are given about Cal's life and his family's. This places him in a normal context, and in the end places a strong stress on the fact that he is a normal human being rather than on what makes him different, even if his particular nature of course plays a big role in the story.
All in all, this is a very well written and captivating book, which succeeds in being moving without being excessively emotive.
"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."
At 41, Cal is a narrator with the perspective needed to share an epic story, beginning with his grandparents who came from Greece to Detroit, Michigan, with a closely-guarded secret. The first half of the book is their story, the story of their son Milton and his wife Tessie, and the story of the immigrant experience in Detroit. It is both sweeping and personal, as any epic story should be. But it is when Calliope is born, joining her older brother (referred to only as Chapter Eleven), that the story becomes intimate, pulling us into the identity struggles that Calliope must negotiate throughout her childhood and adolescence.
I loved this book. It has the feel of some of John Irving's best novels - sweeping, yet intimate (and as a huge Irving fan, that is high praise from me). Calliope is an interesting narrator. Although she tells the story with the perspective of an adult, she is able to bring us into her adolescent mind as she deals with issues of growing up that are at once, similar to those of all great coming-of-age stories, yet completely unique to her experience. She brings us into a family that is loving and warm, but flawed. Their stories are quirky, filled with unusual circumstances, yet wholly believable.
The two halves of this book - before and after Calliope's birth - are not entirely cohesive. She tells the story of her grandparents and parents with some distance. It is a story with details that are specific to them, but with themes that underlie the experiences of many. Calliope's story, on the other hand, is less common, harder to identify with on the surface. This makes it all the more surprising that Eugenides can bring the reader to empathize with this part of the story as much as with the first, more universal part. After escaping from busy daily life into the hands of an experienced storyteller every night for the last week or so, I was sorry to see this book end.
I might never have changed my mind about Middlesex if it hadn't been recommended by Abigail Nussbaum at Asking the Wrong Questions. Even with her brief review, and even knowing that the title referred to a boy raised as a girl and not the county in England, I didn't know what to expect. I vaguely guessed it was something very British, with tea and nannies. I could not have been more wrong, and was completely blown away.
Set mostly in Detroit in the '60s and '70s, Middlesex ranges fluidly backward to Turkey in the '20s to Berlin in the present to tell the story of Calliope Helen Stephanides, a biological male raised and treated as a female. With riffs on genetics, history, politics, growing up ethnic in a WASPy world, family, race, the suburbs, and Cadillacs, this is a funny, tragic, eloquent book, with many memorable passages and images.
Part of the fun for me is that Cal is almost exactly my own age. He experienced many of the things I experienced growing up. Like me, he lived through the race riots of the '60s (way more up close and personal than I did, however); his teenage medicine cabinet is filled with Psst instant shampoo and Love deodorant; schoolgirls use Flair pens. (The minorest of quibbles: noone drank bottled water in 1973.) One thing he doesn't really talk about much is Callie's clothes. Did Callie the girl, like me and so many girls our age, fight with her mother about wearing jeans instead of skirts? Would she have experienced them as liberation or as another threat to her precarious gender identity, as with her refusal to cut her hair?
Another gripping, not so fun, aspect of the book is Callie's eventual diagnosis as a hermaphrodite. I think a lot of people can identify with Cal's horror at the realization that, beyond the normal insecurities of adolescence, there really is something different about him. And that what's more, his parents, who supposedly know him the best and love him the most, think he is fundamentally flawed, wrong, broken, in need of fixing. For me, this resonated very deeply with my experience of growing up fat.
In some ways, the book reminded me strongly of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose in the way Cal reconstructs the lives of his grandparents in an effort to understand and cope with his own situation. Like Lyman Ward, Cal must fully accept his own difference before he can let others in and accept love. I only wish this part of the story -- Cal's final achievement of intimacy with a woman after 30 years of loneliness -- had been more deeply explored.
Edited to add: I may have been late on the Middlesex bandwagon, but at least I beat Oprah!
It is easy to see why this book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2003. At once a sweeping rollicking comic epic family saga, this novel breaks new ground by successfully hybridizing different literary styles and throwing aside conventions of proper storytelling voice and construction. The novel is told primarily in first person. How else could Eugenides tell the tale of this endearing heroine/hero without resorting to awkward use of pronouns? But then comes the real breakthrough. How does the author take us into the minds of the supporting characters when the novel is narrated in first person? Eugenides solves this by making his narrator creatively omniscient. The reader is consciously aware at all times that it is Cal/Callie, the protagonist, that is stepping into the minds of his/her ancestors and immediate family to reveal their hidden feelings as she/he tells their tales in third person. It works! The storytelling comes alive on two levels: we better understand the motivations of the third-person characters, and we learn to treasure our creative, endearing, fully human storytelling protagonist. As a bonus, this construction often leaves the door wide open for outrageous comedy, and Eugenides makes full use of it.
The book mixes literary styles, too. It starts out almost like a fairy tale—a tragicomic Greek epic—with chorus, no less! Much of the next part of the novel is written in a 19th-century style. Finally, the novel transforms into a modern psychological coming-of-age tale. As the literary style transforms over the course of the novel, we progress from the stories of Cal/Callie’s Greek ancestors through to the present day. Along the way, we are treated to a courageous Greek-American immigrant family saga as well as the story of Detroit from the Prohibition through to the present day. The story of Detroit is so vividly told that the city almost becomes a third character. In particular, we are brought into the alien worlds of early Ford assembly-line factory work, bootlegging prohibition gin-running and speakeasies, the birth of the Nation of Islam, the 1967 race riots, the rise of franchising wealth, and white flight to rich suburbs including sending children to private schools to avoid racial desegregation. All is so vividly recreated that the reader is transported.
At the heart of the novel is, of course, poor confused sweet child Callie/Cal. The story of her/his gradual awakening to sexual awareness, self-acceptance, and identity is profoundly touching, tastfully rendered, and ultimately very believable.
I loved this book. I did not want it to end; even after almost 600 pages, I wanted more.
Eugenides is a wonderful writer, and he does an excellent job telling a story - too bad it's not the story of Callie but of her grandparents and parents too. You reach the middle of this 500+ page book before Callie is even conceived. However, Callie narrates the whole thing. How would she know such details about her grandparents and parents? She can't - and I think it's a major flaw in the book (not to mention that you have to wait until the middle of the book for Callie to be introduced as a character. Oh sorry, did I say that already? Well, it's worth repeating because it's a major flaw too).
Because half of the book is dedicated to Callie's lineage, I feel his/her character lacks development, which is a huge shame. For me, Callie had the potential to be one of the most interesting characters in modern American literature. Instead, the character falls flat - just like the entire novel.
Middlesex is a Pulitzer prize winner and a recent selection for the Oprah Book Club. Obviously, many people enjoyed this novel. I am sorry that I am not one of them. However, I am more sorry that I wasted a week of my life finishing a book that I now call Middlesucks.
I was wrong on both counts. I loved this book, and I neglected all sorts of important tasks while I devoured it in less than 48 hours.
Right from this stark and startling opening sentence, this remarkable book surprises and moves the reader. It is the story of Greek-American Cal Stephanides, and of his family and genetic heritage and the circumstances which mean that he spends his early years as a little girl.
It is an immensely powerful story, thought-provoking and it is beautifully told. I rather wished that we'd heard a little more of how Callie/Cal the subject became Cal the narrator, but on the other hand there is something very satisfying about the way that the book ends with a new beginning.
The various strands of the story are interwoven in a way which engages interest and moves the narrative along in a lively manner. The historical and regional detail and atmosphere are beautiful, and the characters are very believable and human.
Very strongly recommended.
It's a beautifully written book, with words used as skillfully as grapes in a master vinter's care, the result being a warming, richly flavored, intoxicating read. I laughed out loud, cried once in a while, and gasped in shock more than a couple times.
I thought the story ended a bit abruptly and almost anti-climatically, but if it had ended with any more drama, it most likely would've felt contrived.
This excellent read is well worthy of The Pulitzer, and if I normally read this kind of realism, I would give it five stars, but because I'm ranking it here for my own purposes among books in my preferred genres of impossible worlds and fantastic tales I must rank it lower. Don't get me wrong though, this book is top notch and will not disappoint, especially if you prefer richly spun stories that take place in our own familiar world.
Strangely, in the tale of a hermaphrodite I didn't find anything remotely freakish, but humanely universal, as if by having this protagonist of an ambiguous gender, Eugenides was able to embrace and bridge both (all?) genders. It's an ambitious work, taking in about 80 years from his Greek immigrant grandparents roots in Turkey, to his parents and childhood in Detroit, to his coming of age on the road from New York City to San Francisco and his current life at a diplomatic posting in Germany. It takes in massacres in Turkey, Ellis Island, the development of America's car culture, Prohibition with it's Speakeasies and bootlegging, The Great Depression, World War II, The Nation of Islam, Detroit race riots and Black/White relations, the sexual revolution, politics, religion--there doesn't seem anything missed, and yet nothing that feels rambling or contrived or caricatured.
The voice is miraculous. Technically it's a first person narrative, but it breaks the bonds of that point of view into an expansive omniscience in telling its story of three generations: Book One dealing with his grandparents in Turkey and their immigration to Detroit; Book Two with the story of his grandparents and parents in Detroit before his birth; Book Three with his childhood and early adolescence; Book Four with his crisis of identity when doctors discover he's not the girl he was raised to be. Even in those two parts of the book during his own lifetime, the narration has that expansive, feel of third person omniscience, but with the intimacy of the first person voice.
Eugenides makes me feel for his characters. I ached for Callie--and Cal--both. I worried for him. I hoped for him. I was propelled through the 500 pages not wanting to skip one paragraph and ended it sorry it was over and wanting to read this again sometime--and Eugenides other novel.
The writing in this book is excellent. Eugenides has a very fluid style full of subtle allusions and echoes of Greek poets. All of the science and gender research in it is very correct, too. The protagonist's interactions with a particular gender researcher are modeled on an actual case in the gender literature - gender researchers always get very excited when a case shows up that sheds light on the nature vs. nurture debate: the protagonist here (and the real person he's based on) was one such case, being genetically male, but raised as female until puberty. In the famous case the researcher, named John Money if you're interested, believed that the subject proved that nurture (the gender of raising) was the determining factor, claiming that the subject was completely female. Over time, though, the story unraveled and it turned out that aspects of the subject had been concealed, and the subject eventually switched their gender identity to living as a man. The fictionalized version in Middlesex does a very good job exploring all the factors going into this, and is accurate to the real story, as far as I know it.
To summarize, then, Middlesex is a wonderfully written exploration of gender and identity. It is also a great, accurate introduction to most of the common themes you'd encounter in a psychology of gender class. In addition, it's a great story and a compelling family drama. You should read it.
The book is broken up into four very distinct parts and this is what makes it hardest to explain or define. To sum up, it could be called a sprawling Greek-American family's epic that segues in the second half into a unique coming-of-age story for a third generation child. What starts out as an immigration story becomes something completely different.
The easiest way for me to explain my feelings about this book is separate it into generations. The story of Lefty and Desdemona's flight from Turkey, clandestine marriage, and beginning a life in America enthralled me. I particularly thought Desdemona's feelings, reactions, and changes were realistic and humorous. Her neuroses played out similarly to my own grandmother's making it easy to imagine her. Lefty was also a well-drawn dimensional character. While he could have easily been flat and boring, his details made him very lifelike.
The second generation lost this a bit. Milton, while an interesting idea, seemed too unbalanced to be real, but was a good foil for Tessie's similarly unlikely character. Milton's personality was too strong too often, while Tessie's simpering, depression bored me. Their teenage selves did not match their grown selves well and the change over was too quick to allow me a chance to adjust. I liked Tessie during her adolescence, but she too quickly disappeared and became her annoying adult version.
Finally, the third generation of Cal and Chapter Eleven once again brought me into the story. I think they need to be looked at together, because while the story is mainly Cal's, Chapter Eleven plays his own part. I liked in particular Chapter Eleven's metamorphosis while at college as it was similar to those I've seen in many of those in my own generation. College is partially about throwing off the box you've been defined by for the past 18 years and partially about finding out where you actually fit. Calliope, later Cal, goes through a similar process, but at an earlier age.
Now to discuss the major plot point of the second half of the book: I saw Calliope's sexual awakening and later gender identity reversal as symbolic (but much more drastic) of the changes all kids go through during adolescence. While the scientific aspects of his case were interesting to read and added a flair of drama not usually present in coming-of-age books, I found the similarities to a normal pubescent teen more striking than the dissimilarities. I think if you read this with the idea that the author is aiming at making grand statements about gender roles in modern life, than you'll be disappointed. If you read it as a narrative about a girl who doesn't know who or what she is, then it becomes an impressive piece of literature.
In all, I really believe you can get out of this book what you want. There will be those who are not impressed with it or are disgusted with the story or will be disappointed that it's not a diatribe against the modern idea of gender. I went into this book knowing a minimal amount about the plot and having no expectations and was very happy with it. I think the author has done an admirable job at following up his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, with another equally well-written novel about a family and coming-of-age while at the same time bringing light to a topic many people know little about. If there is anyone besides me who hasn't read it, I highly recommend it! (Sometimes it seems like I'm the only one who hasn't!)
But to get to that point, we have the story of the previous two generations of the Stephanides family, Greek-Americans living in Detroit by way of a tiny village in Asia Minor. It's also the story of how Cal came to have the requisite genetic condition and surrounding circumstances for such a transformation. It's a long story, entwined with a great deal of history: the Turks' burning of Smyrna, the Second World War, the 1967 race riots, the Nation of Islam, all forming a backdrop and context to the family's story. They move through the burning of the harbour, speakeasies and hot dog stands, moving to the suburbs, and I recognise the greater narrative, the story of an immigrant family and their identity, their homesickness and their difference, their gradual assmilation, and finally, their loss of what's left behind.
There are discordant notes in this grand tapestry, of course - sometimes the inner life of the teenage girl isn't particularly well rendered, and occasionally things get a little too soap-operatic - but on the whole, it's an achievement. I could have done with a little more about Cal's life post-"second birth", actually - a little more on how he deals with a life lived male, and how he deals with the family secrets he inherits, but as it is, it's a substantial, solid achievement - a warm bath of a novel, just the right level of comedic, and full of insight into identity.
The first part of the novel begins in Turkey with Cal’s grandparents Desdemona and Lefty. Desdemona and Lefty grow up fairly isolated in a small village. They are Greeks, living as second class citizens under Turkish rule. Desdemona works in the family’s silk business, nurturing the silk worms who provide the means for the sibling’s survival. The close knit relationship of the siblings and the sudden upheaval caused when Turkey and Greece go to war lead Desdemona and Lefty to make a fateful decision that will have tragic consequences for the later generations of their family. The section of the novel focusing on Desdemona and Lefty is particularly enthralling and complex.
Middlesex is humorous, touching, tragic and shocking. While the subject matter might be shocking for some readers, the author manages to make all the characters seem sympathetic and believable. Middlesex is a wonderful and novel and definitely worth reading.
Middlesex is fascinating, epic in scope, and difficult to categorize as a particular type of book. Eugenides uses rich descriptions of background settings and historical context that transports the reader exactly where he needs to be at that moment of the timeline. The slow reveal of the secret that sets Cal up for his genetic destiny is tantalizing as well. With prose that is lyrical and often mesmerizing, this book is one that invites the reader to return again and again to its pages.