Martine's Reviews > Middlesex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
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Feb 03, 2008

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bookshelves: modern-fiction, north-american, family-drama, glbt, psychological-drama
Read in February, 2008

I'm torn on this book. On the one hand, I loved the story, which is, as another reviewer put it, 'the greatest, most incestuous Greek epic since the Iliad'. On the other hand, I had serious problems with some of the writing. I haven't seen my quibbles mentioned anywhere else, so I guess I'm alone on them. Or am I?

In a nutshell, Middlesex is the story of Cal, a Greek American who was born a hermaphrodite and raised as a girl before finally realising he was boy as a teenager. In about five hundred occasionally brilliant pages, Cal traces back his family history (which is rife with inbreeding) to see how he came to be the sort of almost-male he is. In so doing, he not only paints a loving picture of the memorable and colourful Stephanides clan, whose men have rather special ways of wooing women, but of a changing world, all the way from the Greek part of early-twentieth-century Turkey through mid-twentieth-century Detroit to post-Wall Berlin. What with its focus on different conflicts in different eras, the book is quite epic in scope. Yet it is also quite personal, with the social and racial conflicts played out in the world at large reflecting the much more private conflict that is going on within Cal. Both the epic and the intimate aspects of the novel are funny, poignant and tragic, and for that Jeffrey Eugenides deserves applause. Lots of it.

But. But. But.

I have to admit to finding Eugenides an awfully inconsistent writer. While he undeniably has a flair for story-telling, he also has a mad tendency to change tenses and perspectives, to the point where it actually quite took me out of the story. I dislike stories which switch back and forth between past tense and present tense within a matter of paragraphs at the best of times; if these stories also come equipped with narrators who constantly switch points of view, I get annoyed. And this is exactly what happens in Middlesex. Not only is Cal an omniscient first-person narrator who shares with the reader details from older relatives' lives which he has no way of knowing, but he also has a maddening tendency to randomly refer to himself in the third person, which results in sudden bursts of 'Calliope this' and 'Calliope that' in what is essentially a first-person narrative. To a certain extent, I can see why Cal would do this, looking back from a distance at a person he used to be but no longer is, but still, I found it annoying, so much so that I occasionally found myself wanting to scream at the narrator to drop all that third-person shit and stick with the first person, for God's sake. I don't like feeling like shouting at narrators, so that's where one star went. The other one I deducted for the weak ending, which felt rather rushed to me after the perfectly lavish set-up. Is it me, or would Middlesex have been a better book with slightly more information on what happened to Cal between the ages of 17 and 41? With an actual, you know, ending and all that?

I'll stop complaining here to end on a positive note. Despite my quibbles, I enjoyed most of Middlesex -- especially the first half, which is superb. I quite like Eugenides' brand of modern mythology, so I think I'll give The Virgin Suicides a shot, too. I rather liked the film, so I'm actually quite surprised I haven't read the book yet...
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Carolyn I was also torn about Middlesex, though for somewhat different reasons. To me, Cal is just not believable as a narrator. He doesn't seem to have any of the emotional and psychological challenges that the sorts of gender identity issues his life entails bring with them. I came away very much feeling as if Cal's flip was nothing more than a plot device and that Eugenides did no research, or chose to disregard whatever research he did, about what it's really like to go through such an experience. Of course, Eugenides has no responsibility to treat these issues accurately, and the purely symbolic power of Cal's switch is considerable, but nonetheless, the thought of people who don't know anything about the experience of gender-variant people reading this critically acclaimed, beloved novel and thinking that it provides some insight into the experiences of real people with similar issues bugs me.

Still, the novel is beautifully written, and I admired it for that reason. A particularly favorite passage of mine is the paragraph summing up San Francisco's history. Just amazing.


Martine I know what you mean. The way I read Middlesex, Cal's confusion is limited to shame over his 'crocus' and some loving feelings for a young lady. There doesn't seem to be much internal conflict or psychological drama going on in him. He just feels a bit different (don't we all in our teens?), writes his parents a note that says, 'I'm not a girl. I'm a boy. That's what I found today', and that's it. From that moment onwards he's a man. It all seems a bit easy, a bit pat. One would think there would be a bit more agony and soul-searching involved.

Still, it's an interesting book. The writing is engrossing (random shifts in time and perspective aside) and it paints an interesting picture of interesting people, interesting places and interesting cultures. I definitely enjoyed the book, although I didn't admire it as much as I hoped I would.


Rachel I had similar thoughts. I can't say I know what a realistic story of a hermaphrodite would sound like, but this didn't ring true for me. And some parts I find annoying pretentious, like referring to Cal's love interest as "The Object." It was unique though, I will give it that. I'm not sorry I read it, but it was not my favorite book by any means.


message 3: by Josh (new) - added it

Josh Thomas "I have to admit to finding Eugenides an awfully inconsistent writer. While he undeniably has a flair for story-telling, he also has a mad tendency to change tenses and perspectives, to the point where it actually quite took me out of the story."

Yes yes yes. I'm about 50 pages in and this is the one thing holding me back. I'm enjoying the plot so far, but when it switches from first to third then back to first in three successive paragraphs, it completely pulls me out of the story and I sit back and wonder, "Now, what was the point of that? Why did Eugenides decide to do that?" and ultimately I cannot come up with a satisfying answer. It just seems like extremely sloppy writing, which surprises me coming from a Pulitzer book.


Shi Qi Lee I loved the idea of the whole story too, but it's told in such a way that makes me want to drop the book like a hot iron, it just doesn't justify the potential of the plot. I keep getting disappointed at corners where I see a likely climax but it just goes all the way down into some boring drone.

But I still gave it good ratings since it has such a peculiar theme. I think it's a really good book if you can sidestep all the irrelevant and extravagant twists and turns.


message 1: by Neko (new)

Neko Amazing that people still really crave all the convention found in literature.


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