Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I first heard about Middlesex's popularity at my favorite independent bookstore and among the book clubs seven years ago, I wasn't that interested in reading it. I mean, a Greek-American tale of a hermaphrodite? No thanks, I thought. But then Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides came up again when my book club (Wonderland Book Club) was discussing titles to read for this year and I agreed to give it a shot. Well, as you know I don't give many books a one out of five stars nor a book five out a five stars, yet Middlesex made the cut because it has heart, a strong narrative, a powerful unique storyline AND I learned something new. I learned about the Turkish invasion of Greek-ruled Asia Minor in 1922, the Detroit environs and the race riots there in 1967. I learned that the movie "Grosse Point Blank" (1997) came from the suburb, Grosse Point outside Detroit. This exclusive suburb is where our hero, Cal (nee Callie) grows into a teen and Middlesex, by the way, is the name of his house. Of course "Middlesex" also depicts Cal's sexuality. And I learned about hermaphroditism.

This very dense novel which took me longer to read than normal (I didn't finish it bofore book club, but neither did many of the fast-readers in my group) is broken into three parts. The first part addresses the story Cal's grandparents (Desdemona and Lefty) who are (SPOILER ALERT!) also brother and sister. It's a wonderful story of love and risk as the two flee Smyrna, on the Aegean Coast as the Turks (or maybe the Greeks) are burning it down. Because of their relationship, Cal has a genetic mutation on Chromosome 5, so he's born a "girl," with girl parts but is really an XY male with male secondary sex characteristics and a short penis (he calls it his "crocus"). But incest isn't new in Cal's family: many of the villagers from Bithynios were also hermaphrodites because of inbreeding and his grandparents' relationship just manifested things a bit faster. In this section we learn to love Desdemona, who fiercely clings to her Old World values and she and her brother hop on a boat to America and later Detroit, where they are sponsored by their lesbian cousin, Lina.

The second book is about Tessie, Lina's daughter and Milton, Lefty and Desdemona's daughter. This couple (Cal's parents) aren't as vivid, nor as memorable, but we need to mention them in order to get to Cal's birth and the start of his story. Throughout the next, Cal the first person narrator has an open and omnicient point of view. He's a very likeable voice and we want to keep turning the page to see what happens next. His point of view even veers to third person when he nears The details and images in this book are marvelous and we see a lot of play on the theme of air and water. Cal is born a Capricorn, which many believe is both a water and an earth sign -- just like Cal has a dual nature (Jesus was also born a Capricorn, but this is a discussion for another time). Eugenides, especially in Book 3, which is Cal's story, water imagery such as sea anemones, jelly fish and more when discussing what he sees in the girls' locker room at his private school.

For example, "Sea anemones sprouted from between my classmates' legs. They came in all colors, black, brown, electric yellow, vivid red. Higher up, their breasts bobbed like jellyfish, softly pulsing, tipped with stinging pink. Everything was waving in the current, feeding on microscopic plankton, growing bigger by the minute. The shy, plump girls were like sea lions, lurking in the depths."

I loved how Cal reflects on his world and how he knows he's different because of his class and ethnicity from the other girls who are white and whose grandparents weren't off the boat. He tells us about the Charm Bracelets, who are the elite white girls at the school and how his knows that the object of his affection, monikered the Obscure Object is one of them. "Her oxfords were stamped down at the heels so that she could slip into them like clogs. This was something the Charm Bracelets did. Also, she had an antique ring on her finger, with real rubies in it. Her lips were thin, austere, Protestant. Her nose was not really a nose at all. It was only a beginning."

All of Eugenides's narrator reflection really made the book for me. We care about how Cal's life turns out and we understand that he may have finally found Ms. Right at forty-one (the age he is presently writing this book). The novel tied up everything at the end from us learning that Cal never underwent any surgery to change his parts (so he remains "middlesex") and what happened to his parents and brother, appropriately nicknamed Chapter Eleven because he runs the family hot dog business into the ground. However, I was left to find out about how or where Cal finished high school and if he ever saw the Obsure Object again -- we'll never know. This was a great read that was honest, stayed classy, where it could have ventured off into crassness with the intersex stuff, and remained hopeful. Eugenides took seven years to write this book and I guess it might be awhile till we see his next work, but it'll be worth it.

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