on October 27, 2007
The beginning of this book will grab you: "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 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. If you loved the novels CHECKMATE and A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, then you'll warm to this book
on June 13, 2003
More than just the memoir of a 41 year old hemaphrodite, Middlesex is his family's history, focusing on his grandparents, a brother and sister who married, passing on a gene that determined Calliope Stephanides fate. The story goes back to their native Greece and the civil strife that led the grandparents to America, where they settled in Detroit, whose own strife, racial riots in the 1960s, would help determine the family's fate. Callie grows up amidst all of it, a happy go lucky girl early in life who doesn't develop the way her friends do at adolesence, which is when things get interesting. The family goes to New York to see the world's foremost gender research doctor, who suggests hormones and minor surgery to restore Callie's feminity. But Callie calls him a liar and takes off, heading West to SF where she lives for awhile, displaying herself in a porn shop. In the end is a family reunion, the high point being a conversation with her grandmother, in her 80s and nearly gone, but lucid enough to admit the truth about her past, which sheds light on Cal's present. A fascinating and impressive book.
"Some people inherit houses; others paintings or highly insured violin bows. Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed." (Pg.401). "Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind." (Pg.479). So says Calliope Stephanides.
This sweeping family epic comes down to one family member Callie/Cal who narrates the story of her family from their harried flight from Smyrna, a tiny village in Asia Minor in 1922 to their roots in Detroit, Michigan. It is a story of immigrants and a story of complicated gender issues. A saga spanning three generations that leads this one child to a choice, or perhaps more so `an awakening', compliments of genes and chromosomes. The narrative smartly concerns itself not only with the physical but also, and importantly, the psychological aspects of `intersex' people.
What could be a heavy, ponderous book is written with a lightness of being making it immensely readable while imparting serious and deep revelations.
While symbolism plays a part - not the least of which is the title of the book - this is an intelligent well written story with many aspects for the reader to ponder.
This is a BIG book, and a little difficult to get through unless you can negotiate with your family for some quiet time.
Basically, it chronicles the formative years of Cal Stephanides, beginning with the grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, who were really-too-close for siblings, and who fled Greece as their village burned around them. What ignited even hotter was their passion for each other, and under the billowing smoke, they hatched a plan for a new start in America, jiggling the lifeboats all the way to New York.
Their son Milton eventually married his cousin Tessie, producing a strangely-named son Chapter Eleven, and another child who became their strange daughter Calliope.
Unfortunately for Calliope, the sins of Lefty and Desdemona began the awakening process of a little recessive gene which pushed its way to the nether regions of the second grandchild, forming a little extra something to Calliope's feminine format.
Due to a half-blind doddering Doctor acquaintance, this development is overlooked for years, until more observant doctors at the emergency room make the discovery of the little flagpole.
Referred to a specialist, Calliope tells the doctor exactly what he wants to hear, and after sneaking a peek at the medical chart, beats a hasty exit, emerging from the uncomfortable female cocoon as an uncoordinated young man named Cal.
The story from here moves quickly, as Cal puts his Adam's apple forward (this should have been a giveaway long before) and finds himself quite literally in hot water up to his neck, until he ultimately finds his niche and learns to be comfortable with himself.
There are many stories supporting the main theme, some of which are like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", and some more like "American Pie". Add bootlegging, drugs, fast food and silkworms, throw in a little racism, religion, extortion and a peep show or two - and there you have "Middlesex".
A bit hefty, but never boring.
on May 24, 2006
Eugenides, writing as Cal/Calliope, manages to give proper voice to both his male and female sides. The supporting characters in Middlesex are a very interesting, memorable collection of personalities. MIDDLESEX is a fairly quick read, and the ending is especially fast paced and gripping. So, what is the flaw that prevents me from giving MIDDLESEX a five star rating? Simply this: the first half of the book, up to the moment of Cal's birth, is not nearly as absorbing or consequential as the second half, which focuses on Cal's life and gradual discovery of his/her gender and preferences, which precipitates the book's main themes. Eugenides intends the first half to be more than just the set-up for Cal's story, but I feel if he had restricted himself to simply that purpose, he would have created a shorter but even more powerful, moving story. This was an intriguing book from the get go. With such a unique circumstance to base a story upon, I was eager to enter this world that Eugenides described. (Especially after reading THE VIRGIN SUICIDES). The historical perspective given from the main character really portrays the stigma of gender assignment in culture. Though relatively rare, the idea that someone was raised in a manner opposite to what they truly feel is a topic not often discussed. I encourage readers to take the time and get into this book and view the world from an emerging perspective. There is a bit of historical significance as the character grows up in the racially charged 1960's in Detroit as well as the immigration to America to find a life unwritten rather than follow in the trodden paths of ancestors. Overall MIDDLESEX is a great book and I found it hard to put down. Must also recommend the highly original and new KATZENJAMMER by Jackson T. McCrae-very funny and cynical. A great look at the struggles of one man in New York and all that goes along with that.
on October 29, 2004
I have no idea why I didn't pick up MIDDLESEX earlier. But now I'm glad I did. While the subject seems, at first to be exceedingly strange, there is a lot of truth to what Eugenides puts out on the table for his readers. Cal explores the history of his family, beginning with his grandparents in a small town on a small island in Greece, who immigrate to the United States in 1922. Cal follows his grandparents as they find a new home and a new life in the strange city of Detroit, home to the Ford Motorcar Company in the days before it was known as "Motown." Cal spends his time flickering back and forth between his grandparents' past, his parents' past, and his own. Lingering in the background is that wayward gene- the one which made Cal what he is. Gender is a predominant force in this book, as Eugenides explores sex and sexuality in an intriguing way. Also would very much recommend THE BARK OF THE DOGWOOD for another shocking, funny, and interesting book that gives you yet another perspective on growing up in an unusual way.
on October 23, 2004
I'm always searching for a great book to read, and frankly this one was way down my list due to the subject matter, which I didn't think would interest me. How wrong I was! Eugenides' writing sings! I laughed out loud at one point, and I felt the character's pain in others. His masterful ability to weave this story across three generations of an eccentric Greek family makes for fast and enjoyable reading. Several times he put into words concepts and feelings that are not usually conveyed in print. A wonderful book that I will recommend whole-heartedly to my bibliophile friends. Usually I don't bother to review a book, but in this case I think that Eugenides should be encouraged to write another book as quickly as possible! This is one writer that I'll be on the look out for in the future. More than just the memoir of a 41 year old hemaphrodite, Middlesex is his family's history, focusing on his grandparents, a brother and sister who married, passing on a gene that determined Calliope Stephanides fate. The story goes back to their native Greece and the civil strife that led the grandparents to America, where they settled in Detroit, whose own strife, racial riots in the 1960s, would help determine the family's fate. Callie grows up amidst all of it, a happy go lucky girl early in life who doesn't develop the way her friends do at adolesence, which is when things get interesting. The family goes to New York to see the world's foremost gender research doctor, who suggests hormones and minor surgery to restore Callie's feminity. But Callie calls him a liar and takes off, heading West to SF where she lives for awhile, displaying herself in a porn shop. In the end is a family reunion, the high point being a conversation with her grandmother, in her 80s and nearly gone, but lucid enough to admit the truth about her past, which sheds light on Cal's present. A fascinating and impressive book.
on October 19, 2004
A lot of people will read the description of MIDDLESEX and be turned off. Don't be. If you think you have nothing in common with a hermaphrodite, think again. This is not some medical story, nor is it a "look at me I hurt" type of book. Rather, MIDDLESEX is a book about tolerance and acceptance. Author Cal/Calliope has a rare condition involving a single mutant gene and the ramifications of this reaches far beyond medical science. Really, this book is about society, and the author uses Cal/Calliope's condition as a type of symbol/metaphor. And lest you think that she/he's the only one getting raked over the coals, think again. Other are victims and pawns in the game and Eugenides really makes you think about the actions of not only a few, but of the many. Most books either have a great first half and lousy second half or the other way around. As if to give both sexes equal time, the author has created a book that is quite even--both halves are equally entertaining and enlightening. If you're looking for something really different, but at the same time, something that you can relate to, you've just found it.
Would also recommend another fantastic and equally thought-provoking book, called THE BARK OF THE DOGWOOD. While not about a hermaphrodite, it too is about tolerance and the ills created by society. Very shocking but also funny.
on March 9, 2004
In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides, a student at a girls' school in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, finds herself drawn to a chain-smoking, strawberry blonde classmate with a gift for acting. The passion that develops between them, along with Calliope's failure to develop, leads Calliope to suspect that she is not like other girls. In fact, she is not really a girl at all but what the author calls the "dritte Geschlecht".
The explanation for this surprising fact is a rare genetic mutation and a guilty secret that has followed her grandparents from Greece to Detroit and beyond, outlasting the glorious days of the Motor City, the race riots of 1967, and the family's second migration, into the country known as suburbia. Because of the gene, Calliope is part girl, part boy. And even though the gene's epic travels have ended, her own odyssey has only begun.
Spanning eight decades and an unusually awkward adolescence, "Middlesex" is a long fable of crossed bloodlines, the intricacies of gender and the mysteries of desire.
"Middlesex" is masterfully read by Kristoffer Tabori and I strongly recommend acquiring this audiobook along with the printed novel.
Philippe Horak / email@example.com
on January 13, 2008
I just finished reading "Middlesex" and thoroughly enjoyed it although, I think the same story could be told in about 200 less pages. Having been born and raised in Windsor, Ontario I was very familiar with the references to Detroit. Near the end of the book it tells of Milton chasing Father Mike over the Ambassador Bridge in the winter of 1975. It mentions freighters blowing their whistles on the Detroit River. Wait a minute - all the lake freighters are tied up for the winter and certainly not blowing their horns then. The only boats that might have been running would be the "train boats" but they ran further east down the river nearer downtown Detroit and Windsor. Also it referred to people going to Windsor at 2 a.m. to go to the Windsor strip clubs and casinos. I don't think Windsor had a casino in 1975. There are 2 there now. I'm not aware of strip clubs either but that's possible there might be some now.