By Jeffrey Eugenides
When can I get my hands on it: Now!
What am I in for: Contemporary Literature
This is the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, 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 Callie 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*.
*(Taken from Bloomsbury Publishing ‘s 2003 edition of Middlesex 9780747561620)
Both Sam and myself (Zena) read this book at the same time, and we both had very different opinions on it. Here are our thoughts on this prize winning novel.
This book! Where do I even start? If I was judging this book based on the last third, I would give it 5/5. However, what I hated about this book was the amount of unnecessary information. There is so much back story, a lot of which I found irrelevant to Cal’s story. The historical aspect definitely needed to be told but it was just overdone in my opinion. The only thing that kept me going was the voice. Cal makes a great narrator, sarcastic, witty and emotionally perceptive. Desdemona and Lefty’s story needed to be told, but things like the nation of Islam and the Detroit riots could definitely have been left out. What does the nation of Islam have to do with the story of a hermaphrodite? All I wanted was to hear Cal’s story. How he discovered his intersex self, how he struggled as an adolescent, how society reacted to him? Instead I got a lot of garbage on silkworms and rum running and some church that needs to be rebuilt because of some promise. The first two thirds of this book were long, dense and at times boring. The last third was fantastic!
Eugenides is a great writer. Sentences like, “Intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” and “But humans forget, cells remember. The body, that elephant…” made me appreciate Eugenide on a more literary scale, and I can see why he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. I think I hated the back story because I was so keen on reading Cal’s story. I went into this reading experience with tunnel vision. I should have started this book without the expectation of Cal being the focal point. The overarching story is tied together well, with the exception of the nation of Islam. Seriously, it has no significance to this novel in any way, literally three to four chapters that could have been pulled out without any effect to the overall story.
I loved both Cal and Calliope. While they are the same person, I felt like they were separate individuals, which is a really important thing to establish with an intersex character. Eugenides separates them very well and connects them only through an emotional tether. It really adds weight to the argument of nature versus nurture. Calliope was a façade created out of emotional and physical confusion and the adolescent need to fit in. This book is an important book and is very deserving of the Pulitzer prize, I just wish I was given more of Cal’ story and less background noise.
Final rating 3/5
Despite taking me almost a month to read, I loved this book.
Some opinions are that the history in this book overtakes the story, and while I agree there is A LOT of backstory, I think it’s what makes this such an amazing, depth-filled incredible piece of fiction.
I’ve not read any other book that is essentially the subject of an autobiography reading their story to you whilst remaining completely fictitious. Middlesex is a one of a kind story, I will still be piecing things together for the next few weeks after finishing, not because it’s hard to follow, but because, like the old country Greeks it portrays, it is truly epic.
Calliope is a brilliant character, and it might sound clichéd to say that she was brave, but I can think of no other word that suits her better. She embraced a same sex relationship at a very young age, she returned to a tightly sealed Greek orthodox culture in a different sex, she lived on the street to save her own identity, she worked in an adult entertainment role to save her own life and through it all, her end goal was not fame, fortune or notoriety, but happiness.
Cal’s history is what makes his present, which I think is a very Greek way of not only writing a book, but looking at life. From what I know, Greeks value their past in order to keep the happiness of the present and to validate for no one but themselves, as it should be, that everybody matters and respecting where you came from will mean that you prosper wherever you go.
This being an extremely dense book, it takes a lot of effort to read, and as a character, Cal doesn’t actually appear until a little over halfway through, but I appreciated every word and savoured every page. This isn’t a novel to rush through, but I’m so glad I couldn’t put it down.
Cal as a narrator is simply genius, and the parts where he narrates the creation of his own family tree are excellent, I think the voice is what held my interest more than anything. As Cal came into being and grew up as I read, I became more and more concerned with how things would turn out for him, if he could ever get the happiness that everyone deserves. Especially after being basically subject to what I consider verges on child abuse, in the form of having her genitals routinely exposed and examined by random men, but having it be okay because they have a medical degree.
This is an amazing book, but be warned, it will be an effort to read, but wholly worth it.
Final rating: 5/5
Let us know in the comments what your thoughts are on this book and if you enjoyed having two reviews for the same novel!