Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I've been reading Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides for the past week. I've looked at this book on the shelves and on Amazon for years (it was published in 2002), but the subject matter kept me from buying it. I just wasn't sure reading about a hermaphrodite in 1960s Detroit was something I'd enjoy. However, I saw more and more good reviews of the book, so I added it to my list. I'm probably about half way through it now. It's hard for me to know what to post about just yet, because I don't want to spoil the story for anyone. So, to start, here's a review from Publisher's Weekly:

As the Age of the Genome begins to dawn, we will, perhaps, expect our fictional protagonists to know as much about the chemical details of their ancestry as Victorian heroes knew about their estates. If so, Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides) is ahead of the game. His beautifully written novel begins: "Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study, 'Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites.' " The "me" of that sentence, "Cal" Stephanides, narrates his story of sexual shifts with exemplary tact, beginning with his immigrant grandparents, Desdemona and Lefty. On board the ship taking them from war-torn Turkey to America, they married-but they were brother and sister. Eugenides spends the book's first half recreating, with a fine-grained density, the Detroit of the 1920s and '30s where the immigrants settled: Ford car factories and the tiny, incipient sect of Black Muslims. Then comes Cal's story, which is necessarily interwoven with his parents' upward social trajectory. Milton, his father, takes an insurance windfall and parlays it into a fast-food hotdog empire. Meanwhile, Tessie, his wife, gives birth to a son and then a daughter-or at least, what seems to be a female baby. Genetics meets medical incompetence meets history, and Callie is left to think of her "crocus" as simply unusually long-until she reaches the age of 14. Eugenides, like Rick Moody, has an extraordinary sensitivity to the mores of our leafier suburbs, and Cal's gender confusion is blended with the story of her first love, Milton's growing political resentments and the general shedding of ethnic habits. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about this book is Eugenides's ability to feel his way into the girl, Callie, and the man, Cal. It's difficult to imagine any serious male writer of earlier eras so effortlessly transcending the stereotypes of gender. This is one determinedly literary novel that should also appeal to a large, general audience.

I know some of you have read it - let me know your thoughts.


willikat said...

I absolutely LOVED Middlesex. And I read it before Oprah. I kind of inadvertently went through this phase of reading about transvestites and transsexuals. It's fascinating. I love Eugenides as a writer....he has a gift for tone. If you end up enjoying the book,or even if you don't, I recommend Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian (fiction) and She's Not There (memoir) ... shoot..can't remember the author's name offhand. But it's a memoir about a professor at a small liberal arts college (who's friends with Richard Russo) with a family...who becomes a woman. Completely fascinating. I really felt like I learned a lot about it and it made me very sympathetic to the issue.

A. said...

Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote "She's Not There." I swear it was made into a TV movie - starring Tom Wilkinson? - but I can't for the life of me find it on IMDB.

Em said...

I also loved Middlesex. I really think everyone should read the book. The writing is excellent, the subject matter eye opening.

willikat kindly loaned me both Trans-Sister Radio and She's not There, and agree that both are fascinating. Definitely worth reading.