February 25, 2007
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Finished on 2/16/07
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
Chunkster Challenge #2
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. Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce’s study, “Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites,” published in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology in 1975. Or maybe you’ve seen my photograph in chapter sixteen of the now sadly outdated Genetics and Heredity. That’s me on page 578, standing naked beside a height chart with a black box covering my eyes.
My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license (from the Federal Republic of Germany) records my first name simply as Cal. I’m a former field hockey goalie, long-standing member of the Save-the-Manatee Foundation, rare attendant at the Greek Orthodox liturgy, and, for most of my adult life, an employee of the U.S. State Department. Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then another. I’ve been ridiculed by classmates,, guinea-pigged by doctors, palpated by specialists, and researched by the March of Dimes. A redheaded girl from Grosse Point fell in love with me, not knowing what I was. (Her brother liked me, too.) An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into myth; I’ve left my body in order to occupy others – and all this happened before I turned sixteen.
And so begins Jeffrey Eugenides’ epic saga (and winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize).
Wow. What an extraordinary book. I was captivated from the opening pages and hated when it came to an end. This is a coming-of-age story like nothing you've ever read. Vividly composed of multiple storylines with numerous characters, seamlessly crafted and narrated in an incredibly plausible manner, I continually stopped and wondered how much could be autobiographical; it reads like a beautiful memoir.
I’m not sure what I expected when I began reading, but I do know I was surprised it was so entertaining and mesmerizing. I loved the back-story centered around Calliope’s grandparents and how they met and came to immigrate to America. I loved all the historical details sprinkled throughout the narrative: silk farming, the Greco-Turkish War, the burning of Smyrna in 1922, Detroit during Prohibition, the Nation of Islam and W.D. Fard, and the Detroit Riots in 1967. I found this particular passage quite provocative and wondered if Eugenides had experienced it first-hand (he, too, was born in 1960 and grew up in Detroit):
To live in America, until recently, meant to be far from war. Wars happened in Southeast Asian jungles. They happened in Middle Eastern deserts. They happened, as the old song has it, over there. But then why, peeking out the dormer window, did I see, on the morning after our second night in the attic, a tank rolling by our front lawn? A green army tank, all alone in the long shadows of the morning, its enormous treads clanking against the asphalt. An armor-plated military vehicle encountering no greater obstacle than a lost roller skate. The tank rolled past the affluent homes, the gables and turrets, the porte cocheres. It stopped briefly at the stop sign. The gun turret looked both ways, like a driver’s ed student, and then the tank went on its way.
Another passage that helped set the scene of that particular period in history:
Of all my childhood memories, none has the magic, the pure dreaminess, of the night we heard a honk outside our house and looked out the window to see that a spaceship had landed in our driveway.
It had set down noiselessly next to my mother’s station wagon. The front lights flashed. The back end gave off a red glow. For thirty seconds nothing more happened. But then finally the window of the spaceship slowly retracted to reveal, instead of a Martian inside, Milton. He had shaved off his beard.
‘Get your mother,’ he called, smiling. ‘We’re going for a little ride.’
Not a spaceship then, but close: a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood, as intergalactic a car as Detroit ever produced. (The moon shot was only a year away.) …
There has been lively discussion among fellow lit-bloggers regarding the merit of overzealous hype (deserved or undeserved) of recent book releases, leading me to consider my response to Jeffrey Eugenides' second novel. I knew absolutely nothing about Middlesex or its author prior to picking up the book early this month. I can’t even remember what prompted me to purchase it, but I’m sure it was based on someone’s glowing review (most likely a friend’s, since I rarely read book reviews prior to reading the book). I’m only vaguely familiar with Eugenides’ debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, but haven’t gotten around to reading it, nor have I seen the movie. (You can be sure I’ll do both now.) Middlesex was published in 2002, so whatever rave reviews followed its initial release slipped under my radar. Perhaps that's a good thing. Would I have found more enjoyment in The Thirteenth Tale had I waited until 2011 to read it? Perhaps. On the other hand, what about The Book Thief? Disregarding the hype, would I have simply forgotten to buy a copy and missed out on one of the best books ever? I’d like to believe that the quality of a great book lies simply in the author’s ability to educate and entertain. Whatever the case may be, I’m thrilled to have finally read Middlesex, as it did just that. This is so much more than a novel about genetic mutation. It's a marvelous, epic tale that shouldn't be missed.