Playing Both Sides ~ Book Review of ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on August 22, 2012 0 Comments

Hard to believe that Pulitzer Prize winning/Oprah’s book club selection Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is celebrating its ten year anniversary.  It was a novel that I had been on the fence about reading for a long time.  I knew the title but not the central focus and found the black and white book cover off putting.  Now after reading the novel I still find the cover uninviting and am still not sure what I think of the plot.

            The story is the multi-generational saga of the Stephanides family and their genes – especially the part of their DNA that harbors the 5-alpha-reductase deficiency trait.  It all begins in a small village in Greece where an orphaned brother and sister find themselves willing to challenge conventional social mores.  Spurred by their relationship, as well as the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) they move from their Mount Olympus village to the city of Smyrna.  Unfortunately Smyrna suffers a high price for the war and is set ablaze leaving the siblings barely escaping and on a boat headed to America.  Upon arriving to Detroit (where a married cousin is living) they cast themselves in new identities that will end up haunting Desdemona Stephanides for the rest of her life.  It is also where the 5-alpha trait comes into play.  From there a second cousin marries a second cousin and their union results in two children; a boy and a hermaphrodite who everyone thinks is a girl at first.

        Because of the gene deficiency, as well as a doctor who was a wee too blind to spot the situation at birth, Callie Stephanides acts like any other little girl until reaching the beginning of her wonder years where she finds her body changing in ways very unlike other girls emerging into their womanhood.  After sustaining an unrelated injury, emergency room doctors discover her secret and her life becomes challenging.

           I confess I started reading Middlesex several months ago but would misplace it.  When I write “misplaced” what I really mean is that when I would be ready to read something and couldn’t find my copy of Middlesex nearby so I would start in on a new book.  I just wasn’t enamored enough with the storyline to conduct a literary search and rescue mission.  Despite finding the topic of hermaphrodites living in the modern world interesting in theory I felt that the book dragged.  The payoff for me was more about looking up references mentioned in the novel which indirectly led me to rediscover the Sambia tribe in Papua New Guinea (they were a topic studied in an Anthropology class).  I also found the interesting mystery of Wallace Fard Muhammad (the man responsible for introducing the Nation of Islam to the African-American community in Detroit who then disappeared) worth a Wikipedia look.  In several places Middlesex has a Forrest Gump feel to it.

            What I didn’t like about the story was a sense of detachment between the characters and the reader.  Perhaps it had something to do with Eugenides writing in both first and third person.  I also didn’t have any feelings pro or con about Callie/Cal.  What she had in terms of conversational worthy sex organs he lacked in the personality department.

          I was delighted to find a character based on Dr. John Money because I have always been fascinated with his John/Joan case…and its sad aftermath.  However the novel’s doctor didn’t play a major role and was just a catalyst for Callie to claim Cal.  I was hoping more would be written, but alas it wasn’t to be.  In fact the last hundred pages or so felt rather mashed together as if Eugenides just wanted to be done with it.  Because so much of the earlier part of the novel felt meandering in its narrative it was noticeable how swiftly the inevitable conclusions came.  Readers could guess why Cal’s brother was called Chapter Eleven we just didn’t know the story behind his moniker until the end and then the feeling was anticlimactic.  The same with when the grandmother finally makes her big reveal.

        I recommend Middlesex if you have a curiosity about human and societal oddities because you too will want to look up things and then discuss your findings with friends (NO ONE believed me about the Sambia tribe until they Googled them on their smart phones!).  While reading the book many people told me how much they adored Middlesex and many critics consider it in contention for the title of “The Great American Novel.”  I obviously did not find it so.  I felt many of the things I wanted to know were left out in the storytelling while things I already knew were given in mind numbing great detail.  Overall the book made me feel as if I was at a party stuck in a conversation with someone relying on something they did twenty years ago to be interesting while next to us people are discussing the homoerotic misogynist cannibalistic warrior based Sambia tribe of New Guinea.

         Happy reading!

Westerfield © 2012

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