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Middlesex Paperback – 20 Jun 2013
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Middlesex is a significantly more ambitious and much odder novel than Jeffrey Eugenides' resonant debut, The Virgin Suicides (on DVD), which was a bittersweet paean to adolescent love. This is a sprawling family saga, bursting with life, which spans three generations and crosses several continents. At its core, however, is another unorthodox but exquisite coming-of-age story.
The book's wily narrator and central character, Calliope Stephanides (named after the muse of epic poetry) is a hermaphrodite raised as a girl who comes to realise she is happier as a boy and is now living as a man in contemporary Berlin. Cal's tale begins, appropriately enough, in Greece (or more precisely Asia Minor)--an Aegean Strasbourg whose sovereignty is claimed by Greece and Turkey. In 1922 brother and sister Lefty and Desdemona Stephanides escaped their war-torn homeland and arrived, as man and wife, in Detroit, America. It is this coupling that ultimately begets their grandchild Calliope and her ambiguous sexuality, as she, or rather by then he, sanguinely notes:
Some people inherit houses; others painting or highly insured violin bows. Still others get Japanese tansu or a famous name. I got a recessive gene on fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed.As Cal recounts the experiences of the Stephanides clan in their new land--from the Depression to Nixon--he unfurls his own symbiotic odyssey to a new sex. Cal's narrative voice is arch, humorous and self aware, continually drawing attention to its authorial sleights of hand, but never exasperating. This is big, brainy novel--The Oracle of Delphi puts in an unlikely appearance in the middle of a teenage tryst--but one full of compassion. Eugenides' astonishingly rich story persistently engages the heart as well as the mind. --Travis Elborough --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
‘A masterful dissection and reassembling of the American Dream into a shape you will not quite have seen anywhere before’ Daily Telegraph
‘Superb. Warm and beautifully written. Illuminates part of the human soul’ Sunday Times
‘Truly original and compelling’ Daily Mail
‘Eugenides is a big and a big-hearted talent’ Jonathan FranzenSee all Product description
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Two generations before Cal's birth, Lefty and Desdemona are ethnic Greeks ejected from their village by the invading forces of Kemal Ataturk. They flee to America where they find themselves not quite acceptable to WASP society but very much part of the white world from the African American viewpoint. The title of the book refers, on a factual level, to the family home bought by Cal's parents on the margins of desirable middle class suburbs. It is however, fundamentally about Cal herself, who unbeknownst to anyone until her mid teens, is a genetic hermaphrodite, raised as a girl, but crossing between the poles to live in later life as the man dictated by his Y chromosome. Disclosing Cal's nature is not a spoiler, as it is revealed in the very early pages of the novel.
She only comes to centre stage, carving out her own space on the gender spectrum,in the second half. The first half is much more about the immigrant, and specifically Greek immigrant, experience in America, finding a space on the ethnic spectrum, and gradually becoming more American with each generation.
Middlesex is a long book, something which has recently attracted criticism. However it is a book which carries its length well. It extends over more than eighty years, taking in the aftermath of the First World War, the Pacific conflict in World War 2, race riots in Detroit, the counter cultural sixties, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and mixes in incest, teenage sexual awakening, and family jealousies. This is a book which is long in the way that Dickens is long. Its intricate plotting rewards the little bit of effort needed to stay with it.
There is also some lovely writing in here. Three images, amongst many stick with me. A passage where the rhythm and structure of the prose echo the beat of a production line. The picture of a little girl riding her bike behind a tank on a mission to save her father from the middle of a race riot. The lanky teenage Cal all limbs and hair, looking like a member of the Ramones.
While this is a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent and engaging read, it does hit a few duff notes. Early on, the identity of a preacher for the Nation of Islam lacks credibility. Much later in the book, that lack of believability is also apparent in a philanthropic pornographer, although to be fair, his role in the story is probably more figurative than real. He seems to exist to throw a spotlight on a self aggrandising doctor whose treatment of Cal is as exploitative as that of the sex industry. Thirdly there is a strange final thread involving a kidnapping and ransom which seems oddly melodramatic and out of keeping with the rest of the novel.
That said, the finale of the book is highly satisfying. This is no post modern work with the reader left to make his or her own choices in an inconclusive conclusion. After a good old fashioned family saga, albeit with a massively unconventional family, Eugenides gives us a proper happy ending, leaving the reader with a fantastic final image.
This is an excellent, entertaining, ambitious and ultimately successful work.
The description of decay in the girls, the household and the community is so evocative.
A gripping story but probably not for those who have been affected by suicide in their own lives.