Jeffrey Eugenides

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"Middlesex"

(Reviewed by Jenny Dressel JAN 09, 2003)

"And so before it's too late I want to get it down for good: this roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time."

 

When someone in my book group suggested that we might read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, I pounced on it. I had read somewhere, probably the Washington Post, that Middlesex was a novel based on the life of a hermaphrodite. Okay, I admit it - I was interested - just as I'd be interested in the "World's Smallest Woman" at a freak show.

Read excerptWe find out in the first two pages that Cal Stephanides, our narrator, was born in January 1960 as Calliope Helen Stephanides: a beautiful baby girl. In 1974, it becomes apparent that our teenage girl is indeed a hermaphrodite, with very strong male characteristics, thereby becoming Cal: an adolescent boy. But that's not the whole story, now 41-years-old, Cal is delving into his family history to find out how he became who he is.

As a result, this novel follows the story of a Greek family, starting on the side of Mount Olympus, immigrating to the United States, settling in Detroit in the 1920's and evolving into the 1970's. We glimpse into the Greco-Turkish War, the Burning of Smyrna, the industrial revolution in the United States, prohibition, and the depression years. In addition, we get a taste of life in Detroit, Michigan, during the 50's, 60's, and 70's -- the Nation of Islam, the race riots and discrimination in the real estate industry. All of this through the eyes of the tight knit Greek Orthodox community resulting in something akin to a "Big Fat Greek Saga."

Middlesex may be an epic, but it is also a set of personal memoirs. We explore the life of a young girl growing up in the 70's. She is like every teenage girl going through puberty; trying to fit in, questioning all the feelings she's having, and trying to understand the changes her body is going through. Callie is trying to be "normal." And this tall, lanky girl knows she isn't quite normal. At one point, the narrator says, "Imagine me then, at unlucky thirteen, as I entered the eighth grade. Five feet ten inches tall, weighing one hundred and thirty one pounds. Black hair hanging like drapes on either side of my nose. People knockling on the air in front of my face and calling out, "Anybody in there?" I was in there all right. Where else could I go??" You find yourself rooting for Callie, and rooting for her hard. Eugenides has succeeded in turning the "freak" we were introduced to, in the beginning, into an ordinary thirteen year old girl.

After being confronted with the truth about their child, Callie's parents, Tessie and Milton, take her to New York, and it is there where we meet Dr. Luce, the genetics specialist. He concludes that hormone injections and cosmetics surgery will complete Callie's "female gender identity." The narrative is, "But when I asked if I would finally get my period, Dr. Luce was frank. "No. You won't. Ever. You won't be able to have a baby yourself, Callie. If you want to have a family, you'll have to adopt." At this point, Callie, age 14, runs away, never to be "Callie" again. Cal gets the long locks of hair cut off, buys a suit at Goodwill, and hitchikes across the coutry, ending up in San Francisco.

Intertwined through it all, we get a taste of this dry, dark humor. For instance, Cal calling his brother "Chapter Eleven," and Cal's grandmother, Desdemona, who retreats to her bed after her husband dies saying "A woman's life is over once her husband dies" and then proceeds to live decades. Then there's the "peep show" which occurs in San Francisco, which is just wickedly funny.

Jeffrey Eugenides wrote The Virgin Suicides in 1993, about a Catholic family containing five girls who all commit suicide. You would think that dark topic would be out of bounds for laughter, but I found myself chuckling during that novel also. I think it's because Mr. Eugenides has such a handle on growing up in the 70's; what he conveys, we end-of-the baby-boomers, remember vividly. I find that a wonderful breath of fresh air. For instance, in Middlesex, we are reminded of the make of car called the Gremlin, which has a scene unto itself. We're also reminded of the long gas station lines of the mid-seventies and the year that President Carter decided not to light the White House christmas tree lights, due to the energy crisis.

It took Eugenides 10 years to write Middlesex after his first novel. This reminds me of Donna Tartt, who has just recently re-surfaced with the Little Friend and Jonathan Franzen, who took nine years to write his accomplished novel, The Corrections. This may be due to the large projects these young writers have undertaken; or just the thought and care they put into creating their work. But if it takes Eugenides 10 years to write another novel as lovely as Middlesex is written, I'm willing to wait. And so is the rest of my book group.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 966 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Middlesex at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Jeffrey EugenidesJeffrey Eugenides was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1960, the third son of an American-born father whose Greek parents immigrated from Asia Minor and an American mother of Anglo-Irish descent. Eugenides was educated at public and private schools, graduated magna cum laude from Brown University, and received an MA in English and Creative Writing from Stanford University in 1986. Two years later, in 1988, he published his first short story.

His first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was published to acclaim in 1993. It has been translated into fifteen languages and made into a feature film. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The Yale Review, Best American Short Stories, The Gettysburg Review and Granta's Best of Young American Novelists.

Eugenides is the recipient of many awards, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Foundation for the Arts, a Whiting Writers' Award, and the Henry D. Vursell Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the past few years he has been a Fellow of the Berliner Künstlerprogramm of the DAAD and of the American Academy in Berlin. His novel Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

He is currently living in Berlin with his wife and daughter.

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