middlesexJeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex tells the story of Cal Stephanides, a 41-year-old man who was raised as a girl. As a teenager, Cal (then known as Calliope) learned of the rare genetic anomaly that caused him to appear to be female despite having a Y chromosome. In Middlesex, Cal traces his genetic heritage, beginning with his grandparents, who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s.

So we have here two stories, an intergenerational immigrant story, complete with cultural misunderstandings and assimilation, and a story of sex and gender and identity. The trouble is, the two flawed, but moderately entertaining stories don’t quite gel into a coherent whole.

The immigrant story, which is the main focus of more than half of the book, doesn’t offer a lot that’s particularly new or original, but I enjoyed much of it anyway. Parts of it, such as the description of the graduation program put on by Cal’s grandfather’s English class, were quite funny. The characters did seem more like types than people, and some of the historical coincidences (such as the identity of Cal’s maternal grandfather) felt too much like attempts at making the book “important.” Still, I was entertained by the story.

The coming-of-age story is very original, but less well executed. This story could have filled a book on its own, but I got the feeling that Eugenides didn’t quite know what to do with the material. At one point, Cal says that he’s still not entirely comfortable as a man, but we only really see this struggle in his efforts at dating, and the discomfort here seems to have more to do with how to explain his situation to the women he dates, not with any existential sexual crisis. It’s complex stuff, and Cal’s thoughts and experiences are intriguing, but this section of the book feels too hurried to be satisfying. Plus, the way Cal switched from first person to third person drove me crazy. I can see how he might be trying to distance himself from his former identity as Calliope, but the switches seemed to occur randomly, and they made the narration feel unpolished.

The two halves of this book do share a common theme of identity and change. What makes a person an American? What makes a person a man? The Stephanides family lives in the middle of two cultures, just as Cal lives in the middle of two genders. But this book never really brings those two ideas together. Maybe it’s not possible to do so successfully; maybe culture and sex are too different for such a parallel to work. But if that’s the case, I would rather see these two narratives in separate books. As it is, they tend to compete with, rather than complement, each other.

Despite its serious flaws, this book is not a bad read. I can’t understand how it managed to win the Pulitzer, but even if I don’t think it deserved such a significant prize, I wouldn’t steer potential readers away from it. I’d just recommend lowered expectations. It’s a good book, not a great book.

Middlesex is my 8th selection for the 1% Well-Read Challenge (2 books to go); my 25th book for the Countdown Challenge (19 to go); my 3rd book for the Read Your Own Books Challenge (27 to go); and my 3rd for the New Author Challenge (22 to go).

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8 Responses to Middlesex

  1. Jenny says:

    Sigh. I had exactly the same reaction to this book. I felt, somehow, that I ought to like it more — it had won a big prize and it was about such an odd and interesting topic — and I did like certain scenes. (I liked the part about the mermaid.) But it never quite came together for me. Maybe that was the point, but if so, I didn’t like the point. Oh well. I may still read The Virgin Suicides.

  2. Eva says:

    Personally, I did enjoy this one, up until Cal ran away from the home. Then it all just became silly. Especially since, to get into the foreign service, you have to go through an extensive background check. Anyway, I’m not sure why it won the Pulitzer either. I think The Virgin Suicides was much, much better!

  3. Jes says:

    Yea, I wasn’t hugely fond of Middlesex either. You explain the literary side of it, which I haven’t been able to put into words (thanks for the idea that the between two cultures and between two genders didn’t quite mesh), but also, it just felt sensationalistic to me. There’s a lot of ways people end up intersexed, and the author chose the absolutely most sensational way possible (which by the way, isn’t remotely the most common way), and that pretty much set the tone for the book. For the immigrant family story, I didn’t mind the tone so much – it was an epic, somewhat soapy story, and I found it pretty interesting. But the rest, not as much. At this point, I’d much rather read a book by an actual intersexed person (JE is not to my knowledge) rather than a fictionalized account by a guy who I couldn’t help feel was a little too “interested” in the subject material, and not in the good way. Even the fact that in interviews he talks about “hermaphrodites” – a term not used by intersexed activists in this day and age – well, it just irritates me. To have that huge of a platform as winning a Pulitzer and to not take advantage of that to accurately represent a population so marginalized is unconscionable to me. To me, him getting a Pulitzer is like “look how progressive we are, we gave an award to a book about an intersexed character” without having to deal with an actual intersexed person (like Thea Hillman or Emi Koyama) or someone telling a story which significantly challenges the mainstream medical narrative about them.

    Not that I have strong opinions or anything. :) As do others: http://www.mindfully.org/Reform/2003/Middlesex-Limitations-MythMar03.htm which I’m sure influenced the above since I read it years ago.

    Also hi, I went to high school with Jenny & have been enjoying both your reviews!

  4. You deserve an award! Pick it up here!

  5. Teresa says:

    Jenny: Yeah, I think there was a lot that was good here, but it doesn’t add up. I think the whole tracing of the gene was meant to create a sense of connectedness, but still, the balance was off—too much immigrant tale, not enough of Cal.

    Eva: I kind of liked parts of the story after Cal ran away, even if it was a little silly. Still, it was just parts of the story throughout that I liked. I do think Eugenides is a good writer, and I’m interested in The Virgin Suicides, so I’m glad to hear you liked it even better.

    Jes: Yeah, I had a sneaking suspicion Cal’s story was not typical. It did feel like oversimplication to me. Cal does express some disinterest in being part of the intersexed community, but I wish that whole part of the story—his reasoning for that decision, etc.—had been more developed so we could have a broader understanding of the topic. And I totally hear you on the giving the Pulitzer to something that looks “progressive.” I think Jimmy Zizmo’s identity plays into that impulse as well.

    Meg89: Thanks so much! So glad to be contributing to your TBR overload :-)

  6. Pingback: January/February 2009 reviews : 1% Well-Read Challenge

  7. Pingback: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides | Books of Mee

  8. Pingback: Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

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