Sunday, April 19, 2015

Book Review: "Middlesex"

MiddlesexMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When this novel came out, in 2002, several people urged me to read it, but although I did pick up a copy, I resisted reading it all the way up until now. I wasn't sure that femcentric me would like reading about a girl who decides she's a boy. I wasn't entirely wrong on that score, but this book is about much more than that.

Jeffrey Eugenides is from the area where I grew up, and the local flavor really added to the book's appeal for me. "Middlesex" sounds, from that title, as if it would be about fox hunters in England or something, but it begins in Asia minor and ends up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan some half century later. It's a sweeping family saga, beginning with the narrator's grandparents escaping the burning of Smyrna and emigrating to Detroit. How he knows the whole story is a little bit questionable, and there are things in this story that, really, he would not have known, but that really didn't bother me very much. Really, it's a rip-snorting yarn with plenty of heart right through the first half of the book.

The narrator is Cal, a rather buttoned-down forty-something man working as a diplomatic attache in Germany. The thing is, Cal was born Calliope--Callie for short--and was a girl until she was fourteen. Aye, there's the rub. Callie is, unbeknownst even to herself, a hermaphrodite who appears female, is raised female, thinks and acts and considers herself female, but is genetically male. When puberty hits, the wheels come off. Back to that in a minute.

I've often thought that male authors generally do a pretty poor job of writing women characters. Not so Mr. Eugenides. He made Callie so real to me that I actually put down the book and Googled the author to see whether this yarn might actually be his story. It isn't, but he wrote it well enough that there I was, checking. The best part of the book, to me, came in the third (of four) sections, when Callie is enrolled at a girls' school and suspects she is different, but isn't sure what exactly is going on. She falls hard for a classmate, referred to only as "The Obscure Object", or "The Object." (Callie's brother is similarly referred to only as "Chapter Eleven" throughout the book. I found this trick kind of irritating.) All the confusions, desires, jealousies, insecurities, and the whole boatload of teenage female experience are woven into this section of the story, through Callie's eyes. It was spot-on, and also very heartbreaking. Finally, an accident sends Callie to the hospital where her secret is revealed.

Enter Dr. Luce. After two weeks of examining and observing Callie, he recommends to her parents that she have a cosmetic procedure done, and hormone shots to start breast development and so forth. After a day in the hospital, she can go home and continue her life as a girl and nobody needs to be the wiser. BUT, when the good doctor is called out of the room for a moment, Callie reads her own report, and discovers that she is genetically male. Quite unbelievably, I thought, she decides then and there to run away, leaving her parents only a hastily written note. She becomes Cal from that moment onward. There is no joy in her decision. All that follows for quite a while is just scary and confusing and disorienting. He finally does land on his feet, but I didn't buy the reasoning at all. That caused the final hundred pages of the book to be pretty much wrecked, for me. I had really identified with young Callie; I understood her, she made sense to me, and I was invested in her as one is with favorite characters. I found her to be much more "there" than Cal. Cal seemed muted and ghosty, just sort of what was left over after Callie was denied. He didn't appeal to me at all, beyond a maternal kind of concern that he not get killed out there on  his own after he ran away. Despite his later saying that he is still basically the same person, I didn't find that to be so, as a reader. Callie vanished, and I wasn't pleased about it.

I give it four stars because the writing is excellent--despite some rather artsy flourishes in the prose from time to time--and the story is really good for the first 3/4 of the book. I learned a lot about Greeks, old time Detroit, and the intersexed, and I was entertained in fine style while doing it. BUT, that final section...ugh. It wasn't a total wash, and the last two chapters pick up again, a little, but because of the last 100 pages, I can't recommend this book except with a caveat.

View all my reviews


hedgewitch said...

I hate it when authors do that--drop you from a character you like into a new version that no longer seems at all the same. I have stopped mid-way through a book I liked because it made me so frustrated. A great review, as always Shay, and it sounds like it could be a very interesting book, though not up my personal alley.

ellen abbott said...

I read that a couple of years ago. I did enjoy it. I can understand why Cal seems so 'muted and ghostly'. he was socialized as a girl not a boy. he doesn't know how to be a boy or a man. he only knows how not to be a girl.

Cloudia said...

Thanks for this very informative review

ALOHA from Honolulu,

Helen said...

I read this when it hit the bookstores, seems ages ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the book .. And as you have reported, the writing is excellent. The Marriage Plot and Virgin Suicides are also excellent reads!! Go Tigers ~ Go Cards.

Sioux said...

I've picked up that book in bookstores and then set it back down.

Thanks for the honest and to-the-point review, Shay.

Wally Lamb--in "She's Come Undone"--also does a great job of writing from a woman's perspective.

Mama Zen said...

I plan to pick this one up.

Lynn said...

I read that several years ago - a book club choice. I kept it because I wanted to read again and will at some point.