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Home » literature » fiction » Middlesex (Eugenides) — book review

Middlesex (Eugenides) — book review

This is the first chunkster crossed off my list, so hurrah! I’ll be amending my Readings Challenges page accordingly.

Middlesex was first published in 2002, so I’m rather behind. I always feel behind with ‘modern’ books because I tend not to read very many of them, whereas I am always late to the books I love the most: those of the nineteenth century! The Wikipedia article is actually remarkably thorough, so I’ll confine myself below to only my personal reflections. 

The book certainly has all of the quirks and coincidences typical of the Greek epic. People reappear in the most unusual places; there are too few characters so everyone is married to everyone else’s relatives (and sometimes their own!); and there are numerous lucky escapes. This is the sort of book that I love. It educated me about a history I knew only vaguely, particularly the occupation of Smyrna. The early sections in Greece in particular are a romp. The descriptions of a young Detroit, too, are fascinating. This scene-setting is something that Eugenides ‘long-winded’ style handles wonderfully well, and I only occasionally felt the novel dragging. 

Although they are in a way a distraction from the narrator’s life story, I was most engaged with the story of the narrator’s grandparents. I felt that Eugenides inhabited the character of Desdemona and Lefty rather better than that of the adult narrator, although I enjoyed the voice of young Cal most of all. I think Eugenides’ interest was really at the beginning and the end of his tale, and the middle generation lost out. They are convenient joins, but they are stereotyped in their later years. Perhaps this is simply the way that a young child views their parents, and we do have to account for some of this with the fact of the narratorial voice chosen, but it is a shame that the adult narrator hasn’t revised those assessments at least a little.

Cal forewarns us of his stereotypical ‘American’ turn towards the upbeat, rather than a tragic end. In fact, the detail of the almost-sexual relationship between adult Cal and Julie, a woman he meets in Berlin, feel entirely tacked on, as though ultimately the question of actual physical sex and, more to the point, the ‘expectation’ of PiV — vaginal intercourse — that has apparently (mostly implicitly) plagued Cal’s adult sex life has haunted the author’s mind because his narrator is intersex. It’s a shame, in a way, that this needs to be there. It would have been far more powerful, I think, had Cal already secured this relationship, or in fact secured several and been willing to tell us about them in all of their sexually various glory. 

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