Jeffrey Eugenides – Middlesex


I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

So opens Eugenides’ epic novel, Middlesex. Calliope “Cal” Stephanides was declared a girl when she came into this world, against the odds. Her grandmother’s spoon (which had successfully predicted the sex of previous unborn children) had swung indicating a son would be born, but, Calliope’s father begged to differ saying, “it’s science” – well, maybe so, but, fourteen years later (despite being raised as a girl), the Stephanides family learnt that “Cal” had a 5-alpha reductase deficiency, which resulted in the doctor figuring a girl had been born, not a boy.

Narrated by Calliope (and then Cal), this novel isn’t just about the experience as a hermaphrodite. In fact, the narrator goes back three generations, where the ancestors were fleeing Greece during the Greek-Turk wars in the 1920s. Time moves on to World War II, the Depression, the race riots in Detroit, Detroit and the assembly line and finally, the present. The story adapts and evolves with each historical event, and its significance in the life of Cal and his ancestors.

This book is quite a chunkster at over 520 pages long, and while the gist seems to suggest its predominant focus is Cal’s identity crisis, more than half the book focuses on the history and how the relationships through time have resulted in the present. There are incestuous relationships, the whole talk of what is acceptable and what should be avoidable, the “woman’s” role vs. the “man’s” and the filial and parental devotion that runs through the book, making it interesting and captivating.

The writing style is slightly bizarre, switching between third and first person, almost as though there’s two streams of consciousness. But then again, that’s one of the things I do love about Eugenides’ writing (think The Virgin Suicides and the collective “we” narrator). The book is interesting, and despite being fairly long, it doesn’t drag on or feel as though it’s missed the final edit. It’s humorous, witty and perceptive, with the scope of its narrative being ambitious, and in my opinion, Eugenides does a wonderful job of pulling it off.

This is the first book that I’ve read, where the central character is a hermaphrodite. It’s also the first book I’ve read which deals with the Greek-Turk wars. However, I have read a fair few books around the whole immigration malarky, and this does manage to not be stereotypical.

Are there any other books you’d recommend which talks of the Greek-Turk history? How about books belonging to the “LGBT” category?

41 Responses to “Jeffrey Eugenides – Middlesex”

  1. I am glad that you liked this book, I really loved it. I thought it was beautifully written and very much dragged me as the reader into the story.

  2. 3 mee

    I found the omniscient first person view was absolutely fascinating. It’s the first book I read with hermaphrodite central character (or at all) too. It made me want to read more on the topic (and perhaps on the whole GLBT topic) but no book has jumped out to me yet.

  3. The Virgin Suicides is one of my recent favorites, but I have been unable to stay with Middlesex, despite two attempts. Your post is encouraging me to give it another try, however.

    • It’s kind-of hard to believe that the same person wrote both books, considering how different they are. I hope you give Middlesex one more try.

  4. I was into this book and somewhere along the line it just lost me. i think the story ended up being to sprawling and I cared about some things less than others. Members of my book club really loved it.

    • Oh, that’s a pity. The story does sprawl a lot, but I thought that’s what made the book interesting. Of course, the gist at the back of the book was kind-of misleading, as the story was as much historical as it was about Cal’s experience.

  5. I love Eugenides, and love this book so much. Last year, I reread it, just to check if me liking it so much wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t, haha. It got better with the rereading. :) So I’m very glad you like it. :)

    Also, I currently don’t have any recs, eek. I promise to come back armed with a list of books.

    • Wow, a re-read? Much as I enjoyed the book, don’t think I’ll be trying that anytime soon!

      Looking forward to the recommendations.

      • Got it — The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky is LGBT. And I second Orlando and Tipping the Velvet. :)

  6. 12 deucekindred

    Hey there – Glad you liked the book, I think it’s a great one!

    As for LBGT lit you have :

    Alan Hollinghurst – The Line of Beauty and the Swimming Pool Library

    Edmund White – A Boy’s own Story

    Sarah Waters – Tipping the Velvet

    In a way I guess The Hours can be classified as LBGT as well.

    That’s all I can think of for now

    • Glad you agree :)

      Not sure about The Hours. I guess Fingersmith counts as well. Not read Tipping The Velvet, but it’s on my wishlist.

      Thanks for the recommendations.

  7. I recommend the memoir The Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian. It is not about the Turks and Greeks, but about the Turks and Armenians. A novel with a lot of recent Turkish history in it is Snow by Orhan Panuk.

  8. Like Nicole, this book lost me somewhere in the middle (really thought I was the only one, so very glad to see her comment). I’ve held on to the book though… and may try again one day.

  9. I loved this book! I’m afraid I haven’t read any other books about the Greek-Turk Wars and have read very few LGBT books I can recommend. In fact the only ones I can think of are Sarah Waters books and Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.

    • Yeah, I guess Sarah Waters counts, although not sure why, but wouldn’t think of her immediately when it comes to LGBT?

      I’ll check out Fun Home. Thanks for the recommendation.

  10. 20 Pam

    SO glad you enjoyed it Cookie! Lovely review (as always)

  11. How lucky that you read this one now as it was just suggested to me- quite strongly- by two very close book friends. I can’t find my copy quite yet, but I hope to get to it soon, if it gets such great (and then some very not-so-great) reviews!

  12. I loved this book – I found myself completely engrossed in all the family relationships. I read it for a book club a number of years ago and I am glad they selected because on the surface the book didn’t interest me at all. I would never have read it and realized how great it is! I have been meaning to pick up the Virgin Suicides to see who it compares.

    • Tell me about it – it was all so dramatic and soap-opera like; disturbing but enthralling. I think a couple of people in the blog’o’sphere recommended the book very highly, which is why I made it a point to read it. Like you, I’m glad I did.

      Virgin Suicides is enjoyable as well, but couldn’t be more different from this. It’s hard to believe that the same guy wrote both.

  13. Glad you liked the book. Am definitely aiming to read it this year.

  14. 28 kay

    What a great review! I have recently read “The Virgin Suicides” and loved Eugenides’ writing. I know I’ll just have to read Middlesex soon. I knew it was about an hermaphrodite character, but I had no idea it was going back in time and telling the story of previous generations, too!

  15. I can think of sooooo many book with GL characters in them that are great, but I’m still working on finding fab books with bisexual and transgender characetrs to recommend. Like many other Middlesex is the first book I read with a hermaphrodite main character. It was interesting, but I have to admit I didn’t love the writing style quite like The Virgin Suicides.
    Five quick recommends:

    Regeneration – Pat Barker
    Empress of the World – Sara Ryan
    What they always tell us – Martin Wilson
    Brokeback Mountain – Annie Proulx
    The Folded Leaf – William Maxwell

    • It’s so different from Virgin Suicides, isn’t it?

      Thanks for the recommendations – not read any, and not seen Brokeback Mountain either.

      Looking forward to tackling the list.

  16. I was disappointed in MIddlesex; The Virgin Suicides is such a favourite and I think Middlesex had been too hyped for me… I do plan on rereading it one day though to see if it was a timing thing. I do love family sagas and LGBT literature.

    I haven’t read any other Gree-Turk confict literature, as far as I can remember. As for LGBT texts I also recommend Tipping the Velvet, Fun Home, Brokeback Mountain and a little-known, beautiful novel, Trumpet by Jackie Kay.

    • I have Affinity as my next Sarah Waters, after which the only one remaining will be Tipping The Velvet.

      I do recommend giving Middlesex another shot, although think you’d need to momentarily forget about Virgin Suicides while you read it, as the books are completely different on multiple levels. I wouldn’t have thought the same author wrote both, if I didn’t know better – if you know what I mean?

    • 34 Vita

      Oooh, I now want to read this novel Middlesex…. I have looked at it but it has not really screamed to me to be read. Will have a little peruse at the library next time.

      Have to agree with Claire on Trumpet…. great and little-known novel. Jackie Kay is great and really she should write more prose… have a look for her biography of Bessie Smith.

  17. Three Junes was a novel I picked up at the library. Didn’t know about the gay theme, one of several characters portrayed. I don’t usually prefer to read GLBT themes, just because I prefer books closer to home in my own life. But I loved it. Especially because the gay man was portrayed as just a rather ordinary type guy. Nothing extreme. No flame. No stereotyping. Just a young man and his life and relationships.

    I read this book several years ago. Overall I liked it but felt it fell flat in places. It left me with a feeling of , “is this all there is?” somehow. But still worth the read.

    The current politically correct term for hermaphrodite, these days, is Intersex. It sounds, I dunno, less two-legged-beast, doesn’t it?

    TransAmerica is an excellent movie. And OMG, must see Priscilla Queen of the Desert: check out this costume pic:

  18. 36 KT

    Thanks for this review! I’ve been debating reading Middlesex for a while now, but I think I might have to put this on my TBR list now!

    As for LGBT texts, Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet are excellent, but have you ever read Orlando by Virginia Woolf? It’s about a young man in Elizabethan England who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a woman. It’s really lovely, and I’d highly recommend it.

    • I’ve read Fingersmith, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Going to get ’round to Tipping The Velvet soon.

      I’ve not read Orlando yet, but read some lovely reviews recently about it, so I’ll definitely add that to my TBR. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Looking forward to your thoughts on Middlesex. Hope you enjoy it.

  19. I read about Middlesex when it came out and I thought it sounded interesting – but as usually happens with me, I forget all about it as new books come along, so thank you for this review to remind me!

  20. 40 Mish

    I’ll eventually get around to reading Middlesex. Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues and Drag King Dreams are excellent looks into GLBT history in the U.S., giving insight into when police raided gay bars to post-Stonewall and more open sexuality. The second deals more with trans issues as well. It’s been a long time so maybe I’ll re-read one or both of them for a GLBT challenge. Tony Kushner’s plays Angels in America parts one and two are absolute favorites, dealing with sexuality, AIDS, and politics in the eighties. Anthony Rapp’s Without You talks about the troubles his mom had dealing with his sexuality and the musical Rent. For something academic, just about anything by Pat Califia (ie. Sex Changes, Sex Politics, etc…). He speaks like he writes, with humor and wit, so they’re not sloggers. He’s also a local favorite so I may be a bit biased.

    By the way, HI!

  1. 1 My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: March 27, 2010 « Hungry Like the Woolf

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