Friday 29 January 2021

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

For years I've planned to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides but just never got around to it. But having decided this year to vary my choice of books a bit more I thought it was time and  duly popped it onto my Kindle. This month 'at last' I read it.

From 1919 to 1922 Greece occupied a region of Turkey known as Smyrna. Brother and sister Eleutherios (known throughtout the book as 'Lefty') and Desdemona Stephanides live there and are Greek. In 1922 Turkey decide to take the city back and basically burnt it to the ground. Thousands die but Lefty and Desdemona somehow survive and get themselves onto a boat to America, where they are anonymous and no one knows they are related... and in love. Masquerading as strangers who have just met, they marry aboard ship and arrive in the US, a married couple.Their destination is Detroit, Michigan where they have a cousin already settled. 

Calliope, 'Cal' Stephenides is their grandchild. She always says she was born twice, first in 1960 and again in 1974. Something about her wasn't spotted when she was born and was somehow missed by her mother too. Cal knows she isn't like other girls, but not how or why, only that as puberty hits, her body is not doing what every other girl's seems to be doing. Why?

This book was 'hugely' popular when it was first published back in 2013 and I can see why. It's basically a family saga with a twist but the twist does not become centre-stage until at least halfway through the book. Until then we hear what happened to Lefty and Desdemona, their marriage, their son, Milton, and a host of other rather interesting characters. The history of Detroit is very central to the plot, the lot of immigrants such as the Greeks and where they live, also the black population and their lives and how they are generally treated.  The race riots of 1968 are very well covered, something I knew very little about.

The author takes a lot of time and effort to get the reader very close to the characters in Middlesex. Did it work? Sort of. It's 5 or 6 days since I finished it and the family is still in my head. But somehow I didn't feel a real bond between them and me, and I'm not sure why, possibly the writing style. I also felt the book lost its way in the final chapters. Cal behaves in a way that felt a bit cliched to me. I could see 'why' but it felt like yet another book descending into... well I won't say what but I rolled my eyes a bit. I 'did' however learn a lot about Cal's condition and for that this kind of book is incredibly useful and instructive... one of the reasons I read to be honest... I now know something I didn't know before. 

So I gave Middlesex four out of five stars on Goodreads. It's beautifully written, I learnt a lot about Detroit and living in America from the 1920s to the 1970s, and not once did I feel like giving up on it, it had me hooked from the start. I loved it but with one or two misgivings. One big question... why the heck was Cal's brother called 'Chapter Eleven'. Did I miss something? LOL! 

Anyway, recommended really, but might not be everyone's cup of tea. Middlesex is my first book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2021 which is being hosted by Marg at the Intrepid Reader.



(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I LOVED this book when I read it shortly after it was published; my daughter loved it as well. Thanks for refreshing the story line in my mind with this review.

Lark said...

Yay for finally getting around to reading this one. I always feel like I've accomplished something when I finally finish reading a book that's been on my TBR list for years. (Or sometimes decades.) ;D I'm not sure I'd enjoy reading this one myself.

TracyK said...

This one sounds a lot better than I would have thought. I like family sagas. This is a long one though. Maybe someday I will try it.

Sam said...

I read this one a few years ago and remember how much I enjoyed it. To say the least, it tells a story much different from the ones I usually end up reading.

Cath said...

Diane: Funnily enough, my youngest daughter loved this as well and it was because of that I decided a few years ago that I must read it at some stage. It takes me a while to get to these things sometimes. LOL

Lark: Oh yes, there's a huge sense of accomplishment when you 'finally' read a book that you've been planning to for years. :-)

Tracy: Yes, it is long. I read it on my tablet so it went quicker than it might have done had I read it as a physical book. It's my plan this year to try and read something long and outside my comfort zone every month. (My 'comfort zone' being crime fic.) Middlesex was January's book.

Sam: Yes, it's a good one, not perfect but then what is? And I can still love a book that might not go where I think it should but still delivers on bookish entertainment and tells me something I didn't know before. Absolutely... it was different to what I usually end up reading too, although I think your choices are more varied than mine. I'm trying to do something about that this year and Middlesex is my beginning. I feel like it's a good start.

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

Hi Cath

I have obviously seen this book around plenty in the last few years, but I had no idea what it was about, or even which genre. If push had come to shove, I would probably have said non-fiction, going totally by the title and cover image!

How wrong would I have been? (Hangs her head in shame!). This is one of those books I would probably want to read for myself, no matter about other reviews, as it sounds the kind of story which would offer every reader a totally unique and interesting experience.

Your review was really thoughtful and considered and put this one out there for me to consider. Thanks for sharing! :)

Yvonne Xx

CLM said...

My book group read this but I think it must have been while I was in law school and didn't always make it (I sometimes arrived quite late to eat the leftovers, as dinner was always served!). I recall that people usually loved or hated this book. I don't like it when characters have unexplained nicknames but Chapter 11 usually refers to bankruptcy so I assume that was the allusion, although unusual for a child.

It is interesting to read a book after its heyday (sp?) to see what all the buzz was about. When I worked in publishing, we spent many hours pre-publication trying to create buzz but it often didn't work. When it happens unexpectedly - I was thinking about the Guernsey Literary Potato Peel Society, it is not only thrilling for the staff (and the author) but offsets the unanticipated losses!

Davida Chazan (The Chocolate Lady) said...

Interesting... I read this soon after it was published, and from what I recall, it was more about Cal's understanding of who they were and what they were than the rest of the family. That's what stood out for me, and that "coming-of-age" story was very prominent for me. I didn't really pay attention to anyone else in the book, to be honest!

Cath said...

Yvonne: I can quite see why you might've thought this was non-fiction and in fact some of the history in it reads like non-fiction. No need to hang your head in shame. LOL! Yes, you're right, the book would be different things to different people and I think that's the sign of a good writer to be honest. It would be a good book-club read because there's so much in it.

Hope you're having a good weekend.

Constance: Funnily enough I just said to Yvonne that I think this book would be a good book club read. It has so much to say and so much happens, plus there're a lot of issues in it. Thank you for telling me that Chapter Eleven might refer to bankruptcy because I didn't know that. (Could be a US thing? We might say something else.) It would make sense but only towards the end of the book, you might have thought the brother would have been referred to by his own name when he was a child but he never was. Suspect that's meant to indicate how little the brothers meant to each other. So much to cogitate over in this book.

I love hearing about your experiences in publishing, always hear something new that I didn't realise went on.

Davida: Yes, I suppose it was a coming of age story but these days I find I have less interest in that and more in the older characters and their history. Desdemona fascinated me, her guilt over marrying her own brother and how that manifested itself as she got older. Milton and his obsession with protecting his business during the riots. Lefty becoming readdicted to gambling, that sort of thing. When Cal ran away, although I understood why, my interest waned quite a lot as it became full of teenage angst, drugs and booze. I'm getting a bit long in the tooth to have much interest in that and I think the author could have done something less predictable.

CLM said...

Yes, Chapter 11 is the actual name of the Bankruptcy Code chapter in the US. I can see it would be confusing!