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Milton and Tessie carefully plan the conception of their baby using temperature charts in order to maximise their chances of having a girl. They are delighted to welcome their daughter Calliope Stephanides into the world but things are not as rosy as they first seem. Callie grows from a beautiful little girl into an awkward adolescent, her problems more than the average teenage angst. Things come to a head when she is involved in a freak accident and during a trip to the emergency room it is discovered her body is different from other girls her age. A trip to a specialist confirms that Calliope is a hermaphrodite and is in fact biologically male. Callie becomes Cal and has to make the transition from life as a girl at an all-girls school to teenage boy.
Middlesex does not just cover Cal's life story; it covers the story of how she came into existence and how the rogue gene which shaped her body travelled from Greece to the USA. Her grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, flee their tiny Greek village to escape civil war and settle in Detroit with Lefty working in the flourishing motor industry. Their love story is both shocking and moving with the lives of the older generation shaping the destiny of generations to come.
The next generation of the Stephinades family enjoy increased wealth and prosperity but also live through times of social upheaval with rioting and race relations playing a big part in their lives. They also struggle to be accepted as Americans whilst the older generation long to hold onto their old culture. The youngest generation seem to be living the American dream with comfortable homes and supportive extended families but they too will have to face the past sometime.
Middlesex has a whole cast of lovable characters including Cal, the narrator, her rebellious brother Chapter 11, her grandparents, the pious Father Mike and a various friends of the family. Each of the characters is beautifully drawn and their characters jump from the page, the fact that I felt like I knew and loved the characters by the end of the book is testament to the fantastic writing; Lefty and Desdemona for example mature from teenagers to pensioners during the story. Whether the character is male or female, young or old they were realistic.
Calliope/Cal's story is told with sensitivity, he tells his life story with all of the details of friendships and courtships and sexual awakening as a teenage girl to finding out he was actually a boy. As well as the sensitivity there is also a great deal of wit in there are Cal encounters some bizarre situations. Cal's story does not dominate the book, in fact there were some sections which I felt dragged a bit and I wanted them to be over so I could read more about Cal!
Middlesex was chosen for my bookgroup and was an excellent choice with all 10 of us giving the book at least 4/5. It provided a mass of discussion material and themes discussed included the nature vs. nurture debate particularly with regards to gender and gender identity. What makes us male or female? Is it genetic or does our upbringing play a greater part? It led us to reflecting on our own experiences and upbringings and was one of the liveliest discussions that our bookclub has ever had.
Middlesex gets full marks from me for the exceptional writing, imaginative story and characters and keeping me gripped from beginning to end. It is an exceptionally well researched book and as well as being entertained I learned a lot about Greek myth, both Greek and American history and genetics. This is a book which deserves its status as a modern classic and comes highly recommended by me.
I was bought this book as a gift as I was leaving home to study at Middlesex University! I wouldn't have guessed that it would become a firm favourite and would be re-read many times over the following years.
Middlesex starts by introducing us to the main character, and the main focal point of the story, his transformation from a childhood and teenage years living as a female to realising his true identity as a male at the age of fourteen. As the author captivatingly puts it "I was born twice".
The girl in question, our very capable storyteller, is Calliope Stephanides, later to become Cal, the descendant of Greek immigrants to Detroit. In an initial introduction we learn that as a middle aged man, Cal lives in Germany and is still affected by his unusual youth. We also learn of his attraction to a fellow American and his unease about pursuing a romantic relationships with women.
The story then whisks us back nearly a century to Cal's grandparents Desdemona and Lefty, silk workers in Smyrna, which was part of greece at the time but about to be violently reclaimed by Turkey. As the young and innocent pair flee the burning city, they end up on a boat heading for America and so begins the story of the mutated gene which will travel across oceans and continents and remain hidden away for decades until it finally makes itself known in Calliope, who will be born intersex, unbeknownst to her or her family.
Eugenides tells the story of the Stephanides family through Cal's eyes, even before she was born which gives a very unique feel to the book. I was reminded at times of a Greek epic or saga, particularly the repeated refrain 'Sing Muse!' We learn how Desdemona and Lefty settled in Detroit near their cousin, how they integrated into American life, how they raised their children and how they in turn raised their children, all the while keeping an eye on that troublemaking gene. Then, we watch as Cal and his family struggle to come to terms with the havoc the gene has wreaked on all their lives. I won't give too much of the story away because I really don't want to deprive you of the pleasure I had in watching it unfold.
Something I particularly love about Middlesex is that it is many stories in one book. As well as being the story of Cal/Calliope, it is also the story of her whole family. It is also the story of Detroit through most of the twentieth century, from the boom years of Ford, to prohibition, to race riots. It is also the story of the immigrant experience in America and the various interpretation of the American Dream they all sign up to.
As well as being a captivating, page turning story, this book is exceptionally well written. Eugenides has a gift with the English language, the pages just flow by so quickly and easily that even though this is quite a long book I can guarantee you'll finish it within a couple of days. Whenever I read it, it gets taken everywhere with me and is out at every opportunity. Its the kind of book that stays in your mind and won't let you go until you've finished it, properly digested it, and then read it again!
After reading "The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides, I was desperate to read his other book, "Middlesex".
My mum had recommended the book to me a couple of years ago, and I recall picking it up, reading a few chapters, getting bored, and putting it down.
I decided however, to give it another go, and was pleasently suprised to find that the book that had bored me a couple of years back, ended up being one of the best, most thought provoking books I have ever read.
Jeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit, in the US, in 1960. His Greek and Irish heritage form the basis for his novel Middlesex.
Middlesex was released in 2002, and won the Pulitzer prize for fiction.
Jeffrey Eugenides has only written one other novel, "The Virgin Suicides", released in 1993. (please read my review on The Virgin Suicides).
The book begins, as all great books do, with a fantastic first paragraph.
"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."
The book is about Calliope Stephanides, and the history of her family. The book examines how certain decisions and actions in the past resulted in Calliope (later known as Cal) being born the way she/he was.
Calliope (or Cal) is intersexed (has genitals that are neither completely male, or completely female). She (or he) was born female (at least as far as the doctors and family were concerned), but later learns of the condition that causes the ambiguity (5-alpha-reductase deficiency).
The book delves into the differences between determined gender, and what is learned, and the difficulties in discovering who you really are.
What I thought.
Throughout the book, Cal examines the events, history and situations tht resulted in him being born the way he was.
Hang on. Before I go any furter, I am going to apologise for constantly switching between reffering to the narrator as a he and a she.
Im doing so, because the gender of the narrator is ambiguous, and i think somewhat down to opinion. Whilst the narrator is both male and female physically, the characters actions, personality and moods display very fluid switches between the two.
ok. back to what i thought.
The book begins in the 1920s, and chronicles the story of Cals grandparents, and their move from war struck Greece, to America.
What interested me was how the book seems to weave between so many opposites. Old (with tales of Greek mythology) and new (how Cal deals with his condition in the modern world), Male and Female, science and romance.
There are many contraversial subjects in the book (gender, incest) but they are handled sensitively and responsibly.
I found the chapters regarding incest to be utterl uncomfortable, but then again, I think anyone with a sibling would feel the same utter astonishment at the though of falling for a brother or sister.
The writing was beautifully poetic, and really steeped in ancient greek myth and stories. The characters were beautifully formed, and all utterly individual. The history of the Stephanides family was really carefully thought out, and wonderfully descriptive.
What was wrong with it?
The first half of the book is a little dull and longwinded, although its essential to the plot.
When I initially read the book, and got bored after two chapters, its because I didnt know that it would become more interesting.
Trust me, it does.
My biggest problem, was that I never identified with Cal (the narrator) as a male. To me, the narration was utterly feminine, and I was never entirely convinced when Calliope made the decision to live as a male, and become Cal.
This is interesting, considering the author is male....to me, Cal was always a woman. Just a slightly more interesting than the norm woman.
Where to buy?
I had to pop on and do a review of this book as I absolutley love it, is is possibly one of my favourites.
I belong to a book group who had done this book just before I joined and they highly recommended it to me - what a great recommend!!
The protagonist makes you feel such empathy with him and by the end you really feel that you know and understand him. the book tackes all sorts of issues which could have the potential to blow up in the face of the author, bu the way that Eugenedes does it is simply beautiful.
I have no hesitation in recommending this book, in fact I have recommended it to many people and all of them from my mum to my boss and all my frends love it. I now just regret that I joined my book club a bit too late to join in the discussion, it would make a fanstastic book club book.
The opening line of "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides is "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." This intriguing conundrum is explained promptly as we are then informed of the narrator's ancient genetic mutation, in conjunction with a brief smattering of the contradictions in the speaker's life that led up to and immediately followed this astounding discovery. And that's just on the first pages of this novel. But I can assure you that the remaining 500+ pages are no less engaging.
While an investigation into just this dramatic life-changing event could easily be an excellent subject for a novel, Eugenides decided to also give us the history of how this mutation came about, by including the family history of the main character, starting with her/his grandparents and their escape from Greece. Together we learn the genealogy of Calliope Helen Stephanides and what caused her to eventually become Cal. While this sounds somewhat cut and dry, Eugenides' style is such that every piece of the puzzle is artistically drawn and gently fitted together. But there isn't much mystery here, since we know from the outset where we are being led to. It is how Eugenides leads us there that makes this book so amazing.
Although broken down into four books' Eugenides doesn't stick completely to a chronological account here. From the onset, we get the feeling that much of this is a story told in flashbacks, since we aren't actually transported back to prior to January 1960. It seems more like we are watching a movie with the director's while listening to commentary. This is done by carefully peppering the historical sections with small references to Calliope/Cal. The trials and tribulations of these ancestors therefore take on a rosy wash to them, and despite the harshness of some of these events, we feel they are all softened by the wisdom of hindsight. There's also a fine balance of first person and third person narration here that allows the events prior to 1960 to include conversations of those who were there, along with observances by Calliope/Cal regarding how these events would effect the more recent past and present.
While this mixture may sound like it could be confusing for the reader, there wasn't even one instance where I felt I wasn't sure what time-frame I was reading about. I attribute this to a very subtle use of language alterations which carefully coloured each of the eras included in the story. I was completely convinced that the action was told with older or more modern language as the settings required. And yet, there was still an overall stylistically distinctive voice throughout the novel that kept it from feeling inconsistent or fake. If you think about it, this makes a great deal of sense. For instance, if you recount a story your grandparent told you about their childhood, you wouldn't want to use the same modern vocabulary that you'd use when telling someone about what happened last week. But not all writers can walk that thin line, and this is the type of masterful writing that won Eugenides a Pulitzer price for this book in 2003.
I must mention, however, that this book doesn't answer all the questions it poses. For instance, Calliope/Cal has an older brother who is called Chapter Eleven. Now, the phrase chapter eleven' is something Americans will immediately identify as the part of their laws concerning bankruptcy. We never learn why this brother is called that, or if that's even his real name. We also don't get heavily detailed information about some of the characters. For instance, while Calliope/Cal paternal grandparents come across very vividly, the maternal ones are less detailed. This also seems to pass on to Calliope/Cal's father being a much larger personality than Calliope/Cal's mother. Mind you, we don't always want every single character to get equal billing, so this shouldn't be considered a bad thing. And since Calliope/Cal is the central character, it is she/he that we should concentrate on.
And that, basically, is what we get in spades - Calliope/Cal and how she/he becomes, develops, changes, and deals with her/his condition. Despite all the historical parts included, we always feel Calliope/Cal presence in the narrative, and we often find ourselves looking at those events through Calliope/Cal's eyes. This means that while the obvious, even cliched ways that authors develop their characters isn't evident in this book, we certainly get a far more subtle, almost subliminal indication of Calliope/Cal and how she/he gets from point A to point B. But what struck me as most impressive is how Eugenides instills Calliope/Cal's sexual dichotomy through this narrative. Since the book tells us early on that Cal is in his 40s when he accounts these events, we know that he has been living the majority of his life as a man. And yet, there is something very specifically feminine in almost all of what Cal is, says and does. It is as if Eugenides is telling us that despite biology and Cal's own realization that he really was and is a boy, the effect of an initial 16 years as a girl can never totally wear off. Portraying this, without saying it straight out, is nothing short of genius.
As you can see, I totally loved this book and savoured every moment of reading it. Mind you, it isn't the easiest read out there, so I suggest it be kept for a time when you can concentrate on it. If you do, I can assure you, it will be worth the effort. The subtle use of language and style is exceptional and the subject matter of the book is uniquely absorbing. I can't recommend this highly enough and would give it six stars out of five, if I could.
Thanks for reading!
Davida Chazan © November, 2007
This book is available in paperback new from Amazon.co.uk for £7.99, or through their marketplace from £1.06 for the edition shown in the picture above (ISBN-10: 0747561621 ISBN-13: 978-0747561620). However, there is another paperback edition called "Middlesex: 21 Great Bloomsbury Reads for the 21st Century (21st Birthday Celebratory Edn)" and that sells new for £4.48 and via the marketplace from £2.51 (ISBN-10: 0747590087 ISBN-13: 978-0747590088). (Personally, I'd pay double the highest price for this book.)
Jeffrey Eugenides also wrote the novel "The Virgin Suicides" which later was made into a movie by the same name - that was Sophia Coppola's directing debut. Now that I've read this book, I might want to go back and read this and any other earlier ones, and I'm certainly going to stay on the lookout for more by Eugenides.
You know what it's like at airports, those couple of hours in departures, shuffling aimlessly from shop to shop, hoping to magically pass the time. I always end up parting with cash in the bookstore, because somehow it's justified when you're off on holiday. This time I dithered over the lovely stacks of books, and ended up with 'Ignorance' by Kundera, 'Platform' by Houellbecq, and 'Middlesex' by Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer, follows three generations of the Stephanides family, from the grandparents driven out of Asia Minor Greece to the grandchildren in Modern day America, and principally Calliope, our narrator. I'm not often a fan of those novels which drag things out over so many years of a family, sometimes it seems a trite formula where gaps and holes can creep in, but not so here. Calliope sums up on the first page of the book all that is to follow, telling us how she was born twice, once as a baby girl, and again as a teenage boy. This cryptic summary is like a pebble dropped into still water, and the rest of the book is the concentric rippled rings pulsing outwards, growing ever bigger as the story unfolds and gives the reader the means to piece together the truth with each new scrap of information or sudden flash back. Each revelation left me wide eyed as suddenly a new chunk of the story fell into place. I would have loved to have been there when Eugenides outlined his project to his publishers: 'Well, I fancy writing a book about a genetic mutation that spirals the generations to manifest itself in ambiguous hermaphrodite genitals' Hmm That's what the basis for the story is. Desdemona Stephanides brings this mutation, along with her silk box, a husband, an old Armenian doctor and a family secret, to America when she flees her home in the face of horrific genocide. The main story deals with Desdemona and Calliope, the grandch
ild in which the events culminate. Desdemona, the matriarchal head of the family, also provides a character in which many endearing myths and superstitons and placed, which forces her to watch her brood with a deep rooted fear of being punished for her sins. Eugenides has tackled the science admirably, he doesn't slip into jargon, which would alienate the average reader and be unnecessary, instead he deals with it in a humourous and sensitive way. It would have been all too easy to make Calliope a grotesque figure of fun, but she remains good naturedly human throughout. The family have been placed beautifully into history, from Greece, through the race riots and the prohibition era in Detroit, to modern day America and Europe. Along the way we are forced to examine how sexuality, gender, appearance, the perceptions of others and our quiet genetic history combine to create a sense of self. Infact it is silently educational throughout, thought provoking and beautifully written, packed with pathos. Essentially Eugenides has achieved what must be the goal of all authors: he has produced a work which is comic and painfully tragic by turns, and compelling reading from start to finish. The subject matter may seem bizarre and alien, but no one could fail to be moved by the well detailed characters, the historical roots, and the looping, weaving text that pulls us through to the conclusion, you want, need, Calliope/Cal to be happy, to be accepted. 'Middlesex' by Jeffrey Eugenides, £6.99