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Review Revisited: Jeffrey Eugenides – Middlesex

April 30, 2013

Re-Read. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002)

Length: 429 pages
Genre: Contemporary/Historical Fiction

Originally Read: 03 May 2005
Re-read Finished: 07 April 2013

Where did it come from? Bought from Amazon.
Why do I have it? I originally borrowed it from my roommate; I re-read it for my book club.

“Who am I? How did
I get here?” The Talking Heads,
but also this book.

Summary: Cal Stephanides (born Calliope) has two copies of a very rare allele, which results in a condition called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. This means that while Cal is genetically male (XY), at birth he appeared to be a girl, and was raised as a girl for most of his life. But Middlesex is more than just Cal’s story, it’s the story of his origins, back to his grandparents’ life in a small Greek Village in 1920, their emmigration to Detroit during the prohibition, and then his parents’ courtship and marriage. Calliope is a young child during the 1967 riots, after which the family moves to the suburbs. Calliope’s childhood, while not exactly normal, was a product of her family and the time period, but it’s not until her peers start reaching puberty that she starts to wonder why she’s so different – a question that can only be answered digging into her own origins, and those of her family.

Original Review: This book was not at all what I was expecting, but was still very good. I thought I was getting into a (fictional) autobiography, but it turns out that it’s about 1/2 – 2/3 family history, and only 1/3 autobiography. Still a really compelling, very readable, well written story, and one that I was still thinking about for a long time after I’d finished the book.

[Note: I started writing reviews in early 2006, but read this book in mid-2005, so I wrote this one substantially after the fact, which is probably why it’s so short.]

Thoughts on a Re-Read: It had been a long time since I first read Middlesex, and while I remembered most of the broad strokes, I had forgotten most of the details, so when it was a book club pick, I decided to re-read. My main impression on this second time around is that I don’t really read very many books like this anymore. In 2005, I was only beginning to read fantasy, which is now my mainstay genre, and I was reading a lot more contemporary fiction. And it was very noticeable, as I was re-reading, that my book diet has changed, and that even though I still read some contemporary fiction, and a fair amount of historical fiction (which is a category to which I would argue that at least half of this book belongs), I don’t know that I would have picked this book up for the first time nowadays. And that’s a shame, because it’s a lovely, well-written book.

(Plus it is chock-a-bloc full of biology. How can I not like a book that’s got genetics and endocrinology at its heart?)

(Not to worry, non-sciency-people, the book only briefly talks about the sciency bits, and it’s plenty understandable without them. But for the scientists, it’s nice to know that that aspect is ticking along in the background.)

(And on that tip, I have a bone to pick with the back cover copy: the “guilty family secret” has very very little to do with how Cal got two copies of the recessive 5AR allele, and much more to do with the fact that her parents were second cousins.)

So, the book club discussion for this book was not the best that we’ve had. (I was one of only a very small number that had finished the book.) But I thought a lot of good points got made about how, while very few people will directly relate to Cal’s stories, a lot of the elements felt very relatable, ad almost universal. I particularly liked the theme of wondering where we came from, what minuscule chances in our parents’ and grandparents’ lives meant that the timing was just right to make *us*, instead of some other person. I also thought that the element of feeling that we’re not normal, that there’s something weird about us, was particularly relatable, especially during the awkward early teenaged years. One thing that struck me on this read-through, however, is that Cal never mentions feeling like he was born into the wrong body, or that he was always a boy inside, or anything like that, and in fact at one point specifically says that that wasn’t the case… but that he seems so sure when he does eventually declares himself to be a boy. And it’s a perfectly valid character decision, but it did make me wonder why Eugenides went that route, and if it had some deeper significance (maybe about the relevance of biology vs. experience in determining identity and gender?) that I wasn’t getting.

But yes, overall, a lovely book, and beautifully written, and even if it didn’t quite capture my imagination *quite* as much the second time around, it was still well worth re-visiting. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Recommended for those who like family sagas, contemporary fiction, or books laced with biology, and those who either grew up in the 60s, or like reading about those who did.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Lots of them, at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: 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.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 5: “He negotiated his way past my grandfather’s book-piled desk and his collection of rebetika records.” – a term used today to designate originally disparate kinds of urban Greek folk music.
    .
  • p. 12: “For the next seven years, despite repeated strokes, my grandfather worked at a small desk, piecing together the legendary fragments into a larger mosaic, adding a stanza here, a coda there, soldering an anapest or an iamb.” – a trisyllabic metrical foot whose syllables are short, short, long in quantitative meter and unstressed, unstressed, stressed in accentual meter.
    .
  • p. 21: “Never again, as in the last centuries, would Ottoman officials arrive in the village every year, carting off the strongest boys to serve in the Janissaries.” – A soldier in an elite Turkish guard organized in the 14th century and abolished in 1826.
    .
  • p. 45: “The bakery door showed only a sign that said OPEN SOON and a portrait – which made Philobosian wince – of Kemal, the Turkish leader resolute in astrakhan cap and fur collar, his blue eyes piercing beneath the crossed sabers of his eyebrows.” – made of cloth that resembles a fur, usually black or grey, made of the closely curled wool of lambs from Astrakhan.
    .
  • p. 89: “His eyebrows, however, were as seductively arched as a nautch girl’s, his eyelashes so thick he might have been wearing mascara.” – an intricate traditional Indian dance performed by professional dancing girls.
    .
  • p. 108: “Dressed in silver halters, robed in see-through shifts, they danced, reciting strophes that didn’t scan to the eerie piping of flutes.” – the first of a pair of stanzas of alternating form on which the structure of a given poem is based.
    .
  • p. 131: “But even she couldn’t entirely throw off the chains of the village, and when Lefty had his male friends over to the house to smoke cigars and sing kleftic song, she retreated to her bedroom.” – self-appointed anti-Ottoman insurgents, and warlike mountain-folk who lived in the countryside when Greece and Cyprus were a part of the Ottoman Empire.
    .
  • p. 132: “In front of the sink he built a small bar out of discarded lumber and covered it with scavanged tiles: blue-and-white arabesques; Neapolitan checkerboard; red heraldic dragons; and local, earth-tone Pewabics.” – A Detroit pottery studio known for its iridescent glazes.
    .
  • p. 133: “She was there for your first crushes and heartbreaks, your party dresses and spins at sophisticated states like anomie.” – alienation and purposelessness experienced by a person or a class as a result of a lack of standards, values, or ideals.
    .
  • p. 165: “He went into occultation like the Twelfth Imam of the Shiites.” – the temporary disappearance of one celestial body as it moves out of sight behind another body.
    .
  • p. 199: “Right next to him, there’s me, his sometime sister, my face already a conundrum, flashing like a lenticular decal between two images: the dark-eyed, pretty little girl I used to be; and the severe, aquiline-nosed, Roman-coinish person I am today.” – shaped like a biconvex lens; a lenticular image is one an illusion of depth, or the ability to change or move as the image is viewed from different angles.
    .
  • p. 244: “They looted the Jewish market, taking everything but the matzoh and the yahrzeit candles.” – the anniversary of the death of a close relative, on which it is customary to kindle a light and recite the Kaddish and also, in some communities, to observe a fast.
    .
  • p. 260: “With the same concentration he trained on the aorist tense of ancient Greek verbs – a tense so full of weariness it specified actions that might never be completed – Lefty now cleaned the huge picture windows, the fogged glass of the greenhouse, the sliding doors that led to the courtyard, and even the skylights.” – a tense of the verb in classical Greek and in certain other inflected languages, indicating past action without reference to whether the action involved was momentary or continuous.
    .
  • p. 304: “My rickety height and foal’s legs gave me the posture of a fashion model. My clothes weren’t right, my face wasn’t right, but my angularity was. I had that saluki look.” – any of an ancient breed of tall slender dog developed in Arabia and Egypt and having a smooth, silky, variously colored coat.
    .
  • p. 357: “Moving back and forth, the priests looked like men at a hammam.” – a bathing establishment, such as a Turkish bath.
    .
  • p. 357: “He crossed the solea and came down among the parishioners.” – the portion of the bema (raised floor or platform) that extends beyond the sanctuary from the iconostasis into the nave.
    .
  • p. 369: “Our deracinated feet stomped along in the mud.” – to displace from one’s native or accustomed environment.
    .
  • p. 418: “He measured my jouissance against my linearity.” – jollity; merriment.
    .
  • p. 483: “The barkers were all interesting guys, poets manqués, most of them, and spent their time off in City Lights Bookstore, leaving through New Directions paperbacks.” – short of or frustrated in the fulfillment of one’s aspirations or talents.
    .

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2013 7:36 pm

    So many people I know love this book so I’m not sure how I’ve missed it. Since I grew up in the 60s, I suspect I’d like it.

  2. May 2, 2013 10:16 am

    I love his writing, and so far The Marriage Plot is my favorite of his. I was enjoying his writing in Middlesex too, but the scenes with the brother/sister relationship were a little too well written for me. :) Maybe someday I’ll go back to it, but I don’t know. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for anything else he writes though.

    • May 14, 2013 11:57 am

      Alyce – I haven’t read The Marriage Plot yet, although I probably should, since I enjoyed this and The Virgin Suicides.

  3. May 3, 2013 7:18 pm

    I think, when it comes to Cal never mentioning like he feels he was born in the wrong body, that Eugenides is going after a more fluid kind of gender—i.e., Cal’s girlhood does not negate his manhood. I think it’s useful as an alternative to the traditional trans narrative, but, obviously, as a cis woman, I can’t speak to that.

    I adore this novel so, so much. The audiobook is blindingly perfect.

    • May 14, 2013 11:59 am

      Omni – I think that’s valid. I mentioned it because I was struck by Eugenides’s choice NOT to use the traditional trans narrative, and was wondering if there was a reason behind that choice that I (as a cis woman) was missing.

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