Books I Should Have Read A While Ago: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Remember way back like five or six years ago when you used to go to bookstores? Yeah, it was crazy. Well when I used to go, I’d browse curiously past the “staff recommends” section to see what was up there and whether there were any books that looked interesting.

Middlesex was always there. Always recommended. I’d pick it up. It’d have a cover that declared “this is a thoughtful person’s type of book”. It was tastefully stamped with “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize”. And then I’d read the back cover: Transexual. Incest. Memoir.  That’s sort of when I’d look at the cover again, and put it back on the shelf.

I have a former Vox neighbor who is a schoolteacher and loves loves loves books. Over our past interactions, she’d always keep saying, “Read Middlesex.” And I’d keep thinking, “Seriously?”

I am susceptible to influence however (maybe I should give her Klout?), and I came across it – recommended of course – on Audible. So, I downloaded the audiobook and gave it a try.

I can say without doubt that Middlesex is the sweetest story of incest and hermaphroditism that you’re ever going to find. It is an audaciously ambitious book, taking on some pretty topics weighty enough to typically be a book’s sole focus: the immigrant experience, the rise and fall of American Industry, race relations, generational family saga, coming-of-age story, incest, genetics, and nature-versus-nurture to name a few that pop into mind. Jeffrey Eugenides mashes them all together in a tremendously entertaining and surprisingly touching mammoth tome.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex is presented as a memoir. The narrator is Cal Stephanides a fortyish man at the turn of the last decade. He recounts the story of three generations of his family and traces the course of history (or fate) that cause him to have 5-alpha reductase deficiency (which was fun for me because I’ve worked on endocrinology projects that effect 5-aR activity). Cal is genetically male (XY) but because of the 5-aR deficiency, he presents pre-pubescently, and most importantly is raised, as a female (Calliope).

The writing is plainspoken and occasionally Eugenides gives into groan-inducing turns-of phrase, but generally the books flows well. As a reader, even though I knew it ended with Cal in his 40s, I had no idea of how convoluted the story would get (perhaps there were a couple of tangents that might have been excised. Maybe, I’m not sure).

Anyway, I won’t go into too many of the details – because there are way too many to recount – but for me, the heart of the novel is really about rebirth and second chances. Cal’s grandparents re-invent their lives from scratch after fleeing war-torn Turkey. His father dodges a bullet (literally) by being re-assigned during the Second World War and sets the course of his life. Cal grows from childhood girl to pubescent in-between to grown man and must figure out – as we all do – who we are and what we’re going to do with the life we have.

As an audiobook listener, I have to give exceptional praise to Kristoffer Tabori who did a magnificent job bringing this wildly diverse and rambling story to life.

Four stars out of five.

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20 thoughts on “Books I Should Have Read A While Ago: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

  1. I loved this book.
    I had some trouble getting into it, perhaps due to my friends telling me it was an impossible read, but after a a few discs I was rapt and couldn’t stop listening.
    I enjoyed the narrator of the audiobook too.
    If you haven’t, you hold pick up The Virgin Suicides. It’s almost lyrical.

    • Fish — I’ve heard that “The Virgin Suicides” is very different in its language — in that the two books seem like they’re written by two different authors. After this one, I am very curious to read it.

  2. Stores that sell books? What…you mean made of paper and ink and everything? That’s just crazy. :-)

    I usually limit my “award-winning books” to a couple a year because I don’t like adjective-heavy writing, which seems to be de rigueur for many writers today but this one got to me.

    What’s next on your list?

    • BD — I will usually look at what wins the PEN, Pulitzer, etc and make a choice about what to put on my to-read list. I read for escapism mostly and to turn the other 10 things going on in my brain “off” for a little while, so there are some books I just won’t be interested in.

      Right now I’m reading “Children of God” by Maria Doria Russell. It is the follow-up to “The Sparrow” which is the single best science fiction book on religion that I’ve ever read. Go read that now!

      • I’ve just started “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro.

        Thanks for the suggestions…I was at a mall today so I wish I’d checked my emails before leaving so I could pick them up but the Mister was using my Mac. (Long story.)

  3. Okay. I’ll give it a shot. Like you, I read the blurb on the cover and said, “Not for me.” I’ve also heard various people whose tastes I trust say they liked the book, but I’m so contrarian I seldom like the books everyone else loves. (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo *sigh*)

    I wonder however, if some books just “read” better as an audiobook. I’ve listened to Deepak Chopra’s books on CD and love listening to his voice, but when I read his books, I sigh and gently shelve them as “not really read but I may get to it sometime.”

    • HG — In a very simple way, Middlesex is almost My Big Fat Greek Family Saga, but that’s not very fair, because there is a lot more there than that. I, also, tend to rail against “everyone” telling me what I ought to like (I posted about it back before we were neighbors, I bet it will ring true with you too http://wp.me/pCyKM-Bm )

      And yes — I do think there’s a difference between the audiobook experience and the reading experience. There are sometimes that I want to go back to some favorites and hear/read them in the other format — but I always have too many juicy things in my “to-read” list to do that experiment.

    • Lauri — I really enjoyed Dragon Tattoo, but I read it before its burden of expectations became unmanageable. It is sllllloooooowww to start (I almost put it aside), but about 1/3 the way through it took off like a shot and I really liked it.

  4. I’ve not ever heard of it. It definitely seems like quite a big mish mash. I’m not reading anything right now, so I probably need ot go down to the library and see if they have it!

  5. I thought I may have been the former Voxer you mentioned… I posted this in March of ’09.

    http://jebajeba.wordpress.com/2009/03/15/15/

    I loved the historical aspects woven in the plot – especially descriptions of Detroit, as I live to close to that crazy city.

    I’m glad you liked it!

    Speaking of local (I was a few thoughts ago)… I always enjoy reading books that describe places I’m familiar with – if you ever come across this book:

    http://www.amazon.com/Rush-Home-Road-Lori-Lansens/dp/0316069027

    give it a read… It takes place in the area I live – It’s the 2nd best book I’ve ever read. (The first being To Kill a Mockingbird)

    Cheers!

    • Hey LG — you weren’t, but your review was right on target. I also loved the descriptions of Detroit throughout the middle part of the century.

      I am putting Rush Home Road on my to-read list. Thanks for the rec!

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