Just Finished…Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

One Sentence Summary

Two generations of incestuous Greek immigrants yield Calliope/Cal Stephanides, whose coming of age is defined by her self-discovery of her intersex identity.

Favorite Sentence

Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! (p. 4)

Why I Read It

I read Eugenides’ first book, The Virgin Suicides, probably ten years ago and loved it, but Middlesex has been sitting on my bookshelf for years and I never got around to reading it, despite my wife’s raves about it. The multigenerational immigrant saga has never been a favorite of mine, and I think I needed a break from books where characters happen to experience important moments in US history after reading quite a few of those in the past years. However, I was teaching the early 20th century a couple weeks ago in my US History class, and that is where this book begins, so it seemed like it was time.

Favorite Thing About the Book

Eugenides seems to have a certain knack for writing about houses. My most vivid memories of The Virgin Suicides are of the descriptions of the girls’ house as its deterioration parallels the girls’ decent towards suicide. Middlesex seemed to really come alive for me when the Stephanides family moves into a new modernist house on Middlesex Rd in the book’s third part. Once again, Eugenides used the house to reveal and shape his characters in a way I have never encountered in any other fiction.

Least Favorite Thing About the Book

The first 200 pages, which focus on Calliope/Cal’s grandparents’ and parents’ love stories and immigration experiences, seemed completely unnecessary for me. While they give the book an epic scope, I thought they did nothing but detract from the much more powerful and compelling story of the narrator’s coming of age.

Recommendation

If you’re interested in a 500 page book about the burning of Smyrna, incest, immigration, Detroit, Ford factories, the birth of the Nation of Islam, more incest, the 1966 Detroit Race Rebellion, and the coming of age of a hermaphrodite, I can’t imagine a better book to deliver that experience. The writing, particularly the clarity, strength, and uniqueness of the narrator’s voice, is very good and the scope is epic. However, this book just did not do it for me. The first 200 pages seemed unnecessary, and the book’s final section seemed to devolve into runaway cliches. While Middlesex certainly is not a bad book, I would not rush to recommend this to anyone to which the book’s subject matter did not immediately appeal.

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Posted in Old