Saturday, May 19, 2007

Middlesex

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.

Rated at: 3.0

6 comments:

  1. I'm glad you liked this, even though I found it to be too drawn out. I seem to be more in the minority.

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  2. I enjoyed Middlesex on the whole, but I felt it was overly long, too--maybe under-edited is a better way of saying it. I remember thinking when I read it that the best part of the book (the part where Cal is "outed" as a boy) had already appeared as a story in the New Yorker, so it kind of spoiled the book for me. So I was on the other end of the spectrum from you--I knew too much going in.

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  3. Joy, I'm not sure that I actually "liked" the book all that much. I found its plot to be an interesting one but I never got into the rhythm of the book to where it just flowed from one page to the next. That's the test for me...when I forget that I'm reading a book it has become a great book and not just another book.

    On the other hand, I can certainly understand its appeal to readers and I can easily see why so many people praise it.

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  4. That's an interesting perspective to begin with, Gentle Reader. I was clueless going into the book but I did enjoy best the exact part of the book that you mentioned. I found the ending to be unsatisfying and had been hoping that the ending would save the book for me, so that disappointed me. I found the whole San Francisco portion of the book to be tedious and silly, instead.

    I just didn't buy how easily Calliope was able to transform herself into Cal...almost no personal trauma at all, it seemed.

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  5. I was disappointed by The Virgin Suicides, so I've put off reading Middlesex.

    Re: Calliope transforming into Cal easily: It seems like the experience would be traumatic, doesn't it? I submit that if it had been the other way, Cal transforming into Calliope, the book would've been twice as long!

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  6. I haven't read The Virgin Suicides yet although the book's plot is intriguing to me. For some reason, I just haven't been able to put my hands on a copy of the thing. I hate to hear that you found it disappointing because I was hoping that it would be better written than Middlesex.

    I found an old NY Times review of Middlesex this morning via the Wikipedia site. It was very long but at the end it all boiled down to some of the same criticisms that I discussed in my reaction to the book. Their review was done just as the book was released and before it won the Pulitzer and it was an interesting take on a book that later gained so much popularity.

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