Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

by Kim on April 27, 2010 · 33 comments

Post image for Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Title: Middlesex
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Genre: Fiction
Year: 2002
Acquired: Owned
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: Middlesex is both a sprawling immigrant family epic and an intensely personal story about one person trying to find their identity among challenging circumstances.

One Sentence Review: Eugenides book is exactly the sort of educational and historical fiction that I love to read, so I was definitely wasn’t disappointed in this book.

Long Review: For whatever reason, I have always had these weird misconceptions about this book. I’d often think of it as Middlemarch, which is not this book but in fact a novel by George Eliot published in the 1870s. I also thought Middlesex was more of a sci-fi book looking at gender, something akin to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness in part about a society in where there is (basically) no set gender.

So in my head, I’d always think, “Man, I really want to read Middlemarch, you know, that Pulitzer Prize-winning sci-fi book about sex and stuff.” I’m glad I never said this to anyone in real life, although now I’m admitting it on the blog which is almost as ridiculous. But anyway…

Suffice it to say, Middlesex is not either one of these things, and in fact I liked it much better than I thought because of that. That’s not to say that I didn’t like The Left Hand of Darkness (because I did), or that I don’t think I’d like Middlemarch (because I think I would), just that Middlesex was exactly the sort of immigrant family epic story that book I’ve been reading and enjoying lately.

The story starts out with 41-year-old Cal Stephanides telling the story of the genetic mutation that caused him to be raised a female throughout childhood even though he later identified as male. Middlesex follows the story of Cal’s (formerly “Callie’s”) family traveling from a small village in Greece to Detriot during the 1920s, then out to affluent suburbs in Michigan. In some ways, Callie’ story is that of a “typical” immigrant family (if you can even say that), but in other ways quite different.

One of the best qualities of this book is the way Eugenides skillfully weaves together history and fiction. Certainly, the specific story of the Stephanides family is fictional, but the context in which they live (wars in Greece, coming to the United States, then moving on up in Detroit society) was very real. I got done with the book and felt like I’d learned something about the history and experience of living in the United States at this time, and I always love that. The history was part of the story, rather than just a narrative device use to situate a fictional tale.

I also admired Eugenides’ writing style and ability to balance voice. The story shifts between present day Cal and young Callie, two voices distinct in age and gender. I’m not sure how to describe this or even how to give a passage as an example, but throughout I felt like the voice of the story really fit this confusing mishmash of people, space, and time.

Overall, the story of Callie turning into Cal and dealing with finding gender and identity was written sensitively and thoughtfully. I never felt like the author (or narrator) was sugar-coating the experience, but I didn’t think it was melodramatic either. There could have been temptation to sensationalize, but it’s to the credit of the story that it doesn’t.

This book is older and so famous that I’m not really sure what else I can add to what’s already been written. I throughly enjoyed this book both for the writing and the story, and felt as if I learned something along the way. I’m currently monkeying around with a post about fiction that teaches as it storytells, and I think this book is a great example.

Other Reviews: The Biblio Blogazine | Devourer of Books | A Novel Menagerie | A Book A Week | Shelf Love | reading comes from writing | nicnic17socks (a singing review!) |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy April 27, 2010 at 9:12 am

This is one of those books that you hear about everywhere but I have to admit that I had thoughts similar to yours – so don’t feel bad! I had no idea what it was really about either. Glad to read your review and find out. Although, now I want to go read it soon sooo… I might have to add it to the wish list ;)

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:20 pm

Amy: I know. I actually found the book on clearance a long time ago and bought it because it’s one of those books everyone talks about but I hadn’t read. I think it definitely earns the chatter, even if it’s not a perfect book.

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Steph April 27, 2010 at 9:50 am

I read this one last year and thought it was pretty good. Normally I shy away from loooong books, but this one held my attention pretty well. I did feel like the first half of the book was more successful than the second, but overall I think it was a fun read.

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Steph: It is a deceptively thick book, especially in paperback. I do agree some of the second part isn’t quite as good, especially after Cal leaves home, but when you write a sprawling family epic there are some parts that are bound to be a little rougher.

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Anastasia April 27, 2010 at 9:52 am

Ha! I keep mixing up Middlemarch and Middlesex, too! :D And I’m glad you liked it, because now I’m more interested in it than before. Probably wasn’t as interested in it before because I DID keep mixing it up with Middlemarch, which sounds horrible, actually.

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Anastasia: Lol, I’m glad I’m not the only one who mixes things up. I do think this one is better than Middlemarch, but I’ve always wanted to at least try that one so I’d know.

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Aarti April 27, 2010 at 10:56 am

I’m supposed to read this with a group next month but.. can’t find my copy! It has to be SOMEWHERE…

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Aarti: I think this would be a great group read. There are a lot of things that I think would be interesting to discuss. And with a ton of characters, there are bound to be some disagreements about issues.

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Jenny April 27, 2010 at 11:00 am

*laugh* I get this mixed up with Middlemarch too – both it and Middlesex are books I enthusiastically started to read to accompany the eating of something delicious (chicken katsu curry at the Wagamama on South Bank, my last day in London for the former; a double chocolate cheesecake at B&N for the latter), and then got bored with and couldn’t finish. But I’m glad Middlesex was a good read for you! :)

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:24 pm

Jenny: Yum, double chocolate cheesecake sounds amazing. That’s all I can concentrate on from your comment :)

I do think this one takes a little bit to get into, but once you’re invested it’s good.

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Lisa April 27, 2010 at 11:22 am

I’ve been on the fence about this one but I do believe you’ve finally talked me into giving it a try!

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Lisa: Hooray! I hope you enjoy it!

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bermudaonion (Kathy) April 27, 2010 at 11:33 am

I had a total misconception about this book too. Your review makes me think I’d like it.

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:26 pm

bermudaonion: It’s pretty similar to a few other books I’ve read — some Joyce Carol Oates and even Water for Elephants in the sense that it’s looking back on an experience in a big family epic sort of way.

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Shelley April 27, 2010 at 2:43 pm

It’s funny what happen inside our brains when it comes to book titles sometimes. I think it’s worse when you read a lot and read a lot of reviews. Middlemarch is one of my favorites, but I have to admit I’ve been afraid to read Middlesex. I have thought that I would find it too painful or depressing to read, but maybe I’ll be brave one of these days.

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Shelley: I actually didn’t find the book that depressing. Certainly, what Callie/Cal goes through is difficult, and many of the experiences the family faces are hard, but I never felt bogged down by that. I usually felt pretty good about the characters and their chances for making it.

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Florinda April 27, 2010 at 4:38 pm

This was one of my “Books of the Decade.” I loved it – and I really didn’t expect to. Eugenides’ writing is wonderful, and there was a lot more humor and humanity in the story than I thought there would be. I’m glad you like it!

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:28 pm

Florinda: Yes, I agree. The book was much funnier than I expected. Not laugh out loud funny, but there was definitely some humorous self-awareness in the story.

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diane April 27, 2010 at 5:21 pm

I LOVED this story; it took me by surprise. Excellent review, I LOVED READING ABOUT IT ONCE AGAIN.

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:29 pm

diane: “Took me by surprise” is a good way of putting how I felt about this book too :)

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charley April 27, 2010 at 5:51 pm

I liked The Virgin Suicides, but I’ve started this one 3 times and always end up stopping. I still want to read it, but I think I have to wait for the right timing.

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:30 pm

charley: Timing is important for big books like this. I happened to be at a time where I could just sit down and read it, which I think helped.

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Elise April 27, 2010 at 6:56 pm

I read this book for my book club last year and I enjoyed it. As part of our book club my sister writes an original song about the book we have read and it is always a great moment of hilarity!! Here is her song for Middlesex (which she didn’t actually read!!): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHcFxgvBCyY

Don’t know if singing reviews count for your links, but thought this might be good for a laugh!!
Elise

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:32 pm

Elise: That was so funny! Thanks for leaving the link — a singing review totally counts. I’d review in song if I could sing at all.

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Kristi April 27, 2010 at 8:04 pm

I read this one a few years back and really enjoyed it. I do think that the author handled the subject very thoughtfully. The family dynamics were really well done too. Glad that you liked it.

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Kim April 27, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Kristi: Yes, I agree on the family dynamics. I felt like they made sense, and many of the details about the family and how they changed as they became accustomed to America made me laugh.

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Clover April 28, 2010 at 1:05 am

I bought this in a charity shop a few weeks ago. I’ve heard lots of good things about it, but I think the length of it puts me off ever so slightly.

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Kim May 1, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Clover: It is pretty long, deceptively so, I think. But I didn’t feel like it dragged, so that helps a bit.

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Iris April 28, 2010 at 8:59 am

This is one of those books that I always feel I need to read someday, but never get around to (also, I should probably buy it first). You review makes it sound like a rewarding read though, so I should probably start with acquiring it :)

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Kim May 1, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Iris: I felt like I learned a lot, which is one of the standards I’m finding that hold fiction too and something that helps me enjoy fiction more. So in that sense, yes, definitely rewarding.

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softdrink April 29, 2010 at 4:18 pm

I loved this book when I read it a few years ago, even though it wasn’t what I expected, either. I really liked the glimpses of Detroit history that popped up.

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Kim May 1, 2010 at 4:19 pm

softdrink: Yes, me too. I don’t know much about Detroit, other than all the bad things people say, so learning more about the history was fun.

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