Friday, September 28, 2012

Read This: Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides

I know this book is not new - it was first published in 2002 - and 
it won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so I think it's safe to assume
that the book has been widely read.  But it was new to me.
I just finished reading Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and loved it.

I read The Virgin Suicides years ago, when the film came out, 
and I only recently read The Marriage Plot, so I was already expecting 
good things from Middlesex, considering Eugenides had already entertained me,
and Middlesex was the Pulitzer Prize winner.  The book did not disappoint.

The book begins:
'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.'

The story is narrated by Cal Stephanides, born as Calliope Stephanides,
and tells a tale of genetic inevitability.  Cal is a hermaphrodite.

The story, however, is not as much about Cal's sex/gender, as it is about family
and about the desperation and blindness of love.

Cal begins his story with his grandparents, and their escape from Turkey
as Greek immigrants to America in 1922.  A sizable portion of the book tells 
of Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides' emigration, and their trials in establishing
themselves in America.  Built into their story is the tale of industrial Detroit,
and the changes of the city from perspectives in the automobile industry,
bootlegging, race issues and the American Dream.

The next portion of the story tells of Cal's parents, Tessie and Milton Stephanides,
growing up as part of the WWII generation and as part of a first generation of 
Americans in an immigrant family.  The narrative is seamless from each generation
and member of the Stephanides family through Cal's ability to enter the bodies
of family members and have an omniscient presence.

When it comes to the telling of the narrator's story, the majority of the narrative 
centres on Calliope the girl, and her struggle to move from childhood to womanhood 
in those trying pre-teen and early teenage years.   It is a narrative that every person, 
and definitely every female, knows well.  It is familiar in its embarrassment and 
confusion and desire to be accepted by teenage peers.

The sense of inevitability is not only present due to the course of the narrative
over generations, but is also implemented by the occasional break in the story
by the adult Cal Stephanides showing glimpses of his current life.
It is not until the last one hundred-odd pages that the physical and genetic
condition of Calliope and her shift to Cal is discussed.
Eugenides approaches the topic with a light touch which leaves the reader
only a sense of further understanding and completely without judgment.

I would recommend this book to anyone.

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