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10th January
2009
written by Steph
Middlesex

It seems like pretty much everyone in the universe who reads this book (and their moms) loves it.  It won the Pulitzer in 2003 (generally a point in a book’s favor, I would say), but it was also named an Oprah’s book club pick (I don’t want to be a snob, but let’s say that I don’t look to Queen O to dictate my reading habits… I certainly don’t think people should read particular books simply at her say so, but I suppose it would be equally wrong for me to NOT read a book for the same reason).  It’s been sitting on the shelf long enough that I vowed to not be daunted by its 500+ pages any longer. In the end, I’m glad I did, because those pages were immensely readable and wove a very rich tale indeed.  At first glance, Middlesex appears to be the story of a hermaphrodite (lady-man lady!), Cal(liope) Stephanides.  Cal is born with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, a genetic disorder stemming from a chromosomal mutation.  This results in an insensitivity to testosterone while in the womb, such that Cal is born with the outward appearance of a female; at puberty, however, the influx of testerone causes certain male characteristics to appear.  I found the idea of exploring the nature versus nurture debate with respect to sexual and gender identity through fiction to be a pretty interesting ones and hoped Eugenides would treat the subject with a deft hand. Turns out, Cal’s story isn’t really the primary focus of the majority (at least the first half) of the novel.  Instead, you get a generational saga, starting with Cal’s grandparents back in Turkey, tracing their trip over to America, and so on and so forth.  Middlesex ends up winding discussing family and the “sins of our fathers”, as well as the trials and tribulations of immigrants to America (as well as the non-trivial assimilation process) in the early 20th century.  At first, I was chomping at the bit to get to the juicy sex stuff, but in truth, I wound up really enjoying the story of the Stephanides family. In fact, I kind of liked the family stuff better than Cal’s personal story when we finally reached it.  This is, I think, one of Middlesex’s flaws.  I think Eugenides winds up telling two stories that should be one, but ultimately feel separate from each other.  In a way, Cal’s story feels like it plays second fiddle to the historical narrative, which winds up making it feel as though the hermaphrodite thing was a bit gimmicky.  I wonder if Eugenides started off with the idea of Cal’s character, but then realized that he would only get less than 300 pages out of that, so he tacks on all this other stuff?  Or did he start off with wanting to do a modern Greek odyssey, but he needed a hook? Overall, I found Middlesex to be an enjoyable and engaging read.  But here’s the secret: it’s a fluff novel masquerading as a prize-winner.  In my opinion, Middlesex is a good novel, but I’m not convinced it is a great novel; I am not convinced that this book will stand the test of time.  The writing is engaging and nice to read, but I didn’t feel as though it was awe-inspiring.  This is paired with the fact that I don’t think this book has the requisite emotional or intellectual heft of a Pulitzer-prize award winner.  As I said, it’s a good book, good storytelling even, a rollicking good read, but it didn’t leave me in awe or wishing I had written it.  Personally, I think its size is a big contributor as to why people are less reluctant to recognize its fluff factor.  After all, one thing we do learn in Middlesex is that size certainly does matter! Overall, I enjoyed Middlesex, and if you feel like tackling a big book that reads quickly, it’s very satisfying and I do recommend it.  But I would also be wary of approaching it thinking it stands at equal heights as other Pulitzer winners, or that it will change your life.  Because it doesn’t and it probably won’t.  It’s fun to read though, so that counts for something. Rating: 4 out of 5

6 Comments

  1. 02/10/2009

    This book has been on my list for a while. I’ll be honest, too–the juicy sex was what I was looking forward to as well. Thanks for the review!

  2. 02/10/2009

    If you’re looking for a good story, then I think you should still plan on reading it. Just know that the scandalous hermaphrodite stuff really isn’t as big a focus to the novel as you have probably been lead to believe. With that in mind, I still think you’d enjoy this book a good deal.

  3. 06/15/2009

    I just finished this novel. I hadn’t planned to read it any time soon, but a coworker lent it to me and I didn’t want to have her copy for the next year. I agree that it was a good read, but definitely not all it’s cracked up to be. I too was more interested in the story of his family. I also felt ripped off: I found it hard to believe that a person who had been raised female for the entire 14 years of her life could so easily, and so suddenly, take on the persona of a teenage male. It can’t be that easy! Where was the struggle, why did it only take two seconds for him to run away, rather than asking to postpone the surgery and think? I think his supportive parents may have honored that; he never gave them the chance to. Doesn’t he feel any remorse for the cause of his father’s death? Bah. Anyhoo, I liked it but am pretty sure I won’t read it again.

  4. 06/15/2009

    Yup, I wound up selling this one back to the store because I didn’t feel like I would re-read it. And I agree, that more of Cal’s struggle seemed to occur prior to the doctor’s diagnosis, and there was little thought afterwards. The beginning portion is certainly stronger than the end. Not something to regret reading, but certainly not the best book I’ve ever read!

  5. […] way back in 2009, I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, because I had heard it was a really engrossing page-turner that was super fun to read, and its […]

  6. 04/12/2011

    Oh, wow. I didn’t know this won the Pulitzer Prize. It definitely doesn’t seem “weighty” enough 😀

    That said, I enjoyed the book, but I think I liked the Greek immigrant saga a little bit more than Cal’s trials.

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