Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

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Hello guys,

It’s finally here: my Middlesex review. I had already given you a foretaste in this article so I guess it doesn’t come as a surprise if I’m telling you that I fell in love with this book. Middlesex blew me away, I regard it as a masterpiece.

It took me weeks to read Middlesex, even though it was an incredibly enjoyable reading. It is a long book (about 530 pages for the paperback version) and, most of all, it is a rich novel, in terms of themes, ideas, writing, narrative. It is an epic narrative, almost an odyssey. There is so much going on in this book that it is hard for me to know where to start this review.

In Middlesex, Calliope/Call, the narrator, tells us his incredible story and also his family’s, both intertwining closely. Indeed, to tell us his story, Call needs to go back to its origins: the story of his grandparents, which starts in Bithynios, a small Greek village located in Asia Minor (Western Turkey), in 1922. In August, the Greco-Turkish war reaches a new peak when the Turkish army captures the city of Afyon. Desdemona and Euphrosyne Stephanides are then forced to flee their native village. They arrive in Smyrna to join the thousands of refugees who are already there. They miraculously manage to escape the Great Fire of Smyrna on a boat that leads them to America, where they plan to meet their cousin Sourmelina, who married an American man and has lived in Detroit for several years.

My grandfather, on the whole, came in for better treatment. He was said to have been a silk merchand from Smyrna who’d lost bis fortune in the fire; a son of King Constantine I by a French mistress; a spy for the Kaiser during the Great War. Lefty never discouraged any speculation. He seized the opportunity of transatlantic travel to reinvent himself.

Then begins the American and final journey of Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides: they manage to survive and, from time to time, to live through some kind of comfortable financial situation in the city of Detroit. They get children (Milton, who is Call’s father, and Zoe) and go through a lot of periods which marked American history: the Prohibition, the Great Depression, the 1967 Detroit riots… Then, Call tells us the story of his dad, Milton, which leads to her birth in 1960. Her first birth. Because, as Call tells us in the opening pages, he was born twice: once as a girl in 1960, and a second time as a boy in 1974. Call suffers from a “5-alpha reductase deficiency” (do not fear, to simplify let’s say that he was born as a hermaphrodite: he was genetically born as a boy, however because of its condition the external sexual organs could not be formed properly before birth and appeared as female when he was born. However, during puberty, he developed male secondary sex characteristics). Did you follow? Call was born as Calliope and, because the doctor didn’t notice anything when examining him at birth, he was raised like the girl he and everyone else thought he was. Until the truth came out, accidentally, when he was 14.

Historical fact: people stopped being human in 1913. That was the year Henry Ford put his cars on rollers and made his workers adopt the speed of the assembly line. At first, workers rebelled. They quit in droves, unable to accustom their bodies to the new pace of the age. Since then, however, the adaptation has been passed down: we’ve all inherited it to some degree, so that we plug right into joysticks and remotes, to repetitive motions of a hundred kinds.
But in 1922 it was still a new thing to be a machine.

So that’s what the last part of the novel mostly focuses on: being hermaphrodite, learning it late and the consequences. However, this novel is much more than a great novel about hermaphroditism: it is a family history, a novel about war and migration, and also about the history of a country, a sweet and sour comedy etc. etc. Hard to summarize this book in a line, and hard to classify it. It is definitely an action-packed novel: there are so many surprising twists that the plot takes unexpected directions almost everytime. What is sure is that it both made me cry and laugh.

It is beautifully written: throughout my reading, I was amazed at the beauty of many sentences and I also found its style very “authentic” and true. I think this is also because the novel is narrated from Call’s point of view, and the tone adopted by this narrator-character goes with what this character is. And Call is a great character, I had never felt so close to a novel’s character in a very long time. Throughout the novel, he became my best friend, I felt for him, and I am almost sad to have finished this novel without knowing what would happen to him next. I actually hope there will be a sequel to this novel (or if not a sequel, a book filling out the blanks left in this novel), so that I can see Call again.

The ’67 Fleetwood was my father’s first Cadillac, but there were many more to come. Over the next seven years, Milton traded up almost every year, so it’s possible for me to chart my life in relation to the styling features of his long line of Cadillacs. When tail fins disappeared, I was nine; when power antennas arrived, eleven. My emotional life accords with the designs, too. In the sixties, when Cadillacs were futuristically self-assured, I was also self-confident and forward-looking. In the gas-short seventies, however, when the manufacturer came out with the infortunate Seville – a car that looked as though it had been rear-ended – I also felt misshapen.

I think that is clear enough: you NEED to read this novel. By the way, Middlesex was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, so that’s another reason for you to check this novel out. I am so sad that Jeffrey Eugenides wrote only three novels, this means that I have only one novel left to discover, Virgin Suicides, and I have unfortunately already seen the movie adapted from this book, which will ruin a bit the surprise effect. But I will definitely be expecting Jeffrey Euginedes’s new gem form now on.

Have a good evening, and please let me know if there is a book that recently blew you away!

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Published by Fourth Estate (2013) for the paperback edition

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  • Reply Soti 9 March 2017 at 14 h 52 min

    At first I thought you got it all wrong, since Calliope is a female’s name and you were calling her “he”.
    Then I thought you were confusing “he’ with “she”. Then things got back in order. Sounds interesting!

    • Reply ameliereadingit 13 March 2017 at 15 h 27 min

      Hahaha! It would have been a shame to have misunderstood everything after spending weeks reading it x) But yes, it’s a very interesting book!

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