I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stepanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967, before they move to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Point, Michigan.
To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns her into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.
I first read Middlesex in 2009. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Rhodes University Library had a copy of it. Well, they had The Virgin Suicides, so I suppose I shouldn't have been that surprised. I had my cousin with me at Rhodes that year, so it was wonderful to have someone who adored The Virgin Suicides as much as I did with me. Of course here I am referring to the film, as she had not read the book yet which I had read in 2007. You may gasp at how we watched the film before reading the book, but I should defend myself in saying I live in a very small town. The library offers/ offered a very limited selection at that time, and well Jeffrey Eugenides was not a name that flew around back then.
A friend, Allison, had us watch the movie, and well I am not sure we really understood it back then, we were quite taken by it, we must have watched it like a hundred times. I was overjoyed when I found that the movie was based on a book, and when I found it at the Rhodes Library, I had to take it out as soon as I could. I loved it. And I have great respect for Sofia Coppola for staying so true to the book, but I digress.
I heard about Middlesex on Oprah, there were a bunch of us who used to watch Oprah in the downstairs common room every afternoon. Being able to link the author of a beloved title with a new title that just sounded mind-blowing was wonderful. Sadly I only tracked the title down in 2009, but I am ever so glad that I did. My cousin, Dohné, and I both read it, she read it first and was ever so patient as I made my way through it. Don't you just love having someone who reads the same books as you and never gives away spoilers? And we were equally moved by it, moved is not a strong enough word for what we felt about the brilliance that is Middlesex. So knowing that we both loved Middlesex, how could I - in December of 2011 pass by the opportunity to get us each a copy of this masterful epic? It was fortuitous, rather serendipitous that I was browsing in the Greenacres Bargain Books and saw 2 copies in the 3 for R99 sale section. I grabbed them immediately, clutching them to my chest, oh the find!! Such wonderful bounty from a single browse!!! And no one else had already taken them. It was like the heavens opened. I am sure I must have looked like the Cheshire Cat, grinning so ridiculously, but only the bookish truly understand what it is like to get such a wonderful bargain, and find the book you have been wanting to buy for years. Sometimes patience truly is a virtue, and you find the most wonderful things. But again I digress, I am just trying to make this post a little epic like Middlesex, so I do hope that you are entertained.
I feel that I have woven a beautiful tapestry indicating my reasons for being so fond of this book. I shall now get to the more intricate details that speak more of the contents of the book, than the circumstances that fostered my love for it.
Middlesex is a modern epic, it is a masterpiece that for me comes from the same vein as the Odyssey and Gone with the Wind. There is a perfect balance between fact and fiction, the way that the development of America particularly Detroit/Michigan is woven in so beautifully from the 1920s to the 1970s is wonderful. It does not detract your attention from the story, it just adds to it, it gives it that extra bit of credence that blurs the line between reality and fantasy - so that the story just becomes so real.
There are many strands that weave together to tell this story, the stories of Lefty and Desdemona, Tessie and Milton, Detroit and the changing social climate, Calliope. Each of these stories are given in segments carefully meted out that all at once you get a complete picture. There is never a moment where you feel lost, nor do you miss anyone or anything. We have a masterful story told by a masterful story teller, the muse Calliope, which if you don't know is the muse of epic poetry. The references to popular culture of the time is also phenomenal, you learn so much, one example, the murals by Diego Rivera.
|One of the Michigan Murals by Diego Rivera|
"...great discoveries, whether of silk or gravity, are always windfalls. They happen to people loafing under trees."
How can you not be enthralled by a book like this? But I think, what is the most brilliant part of this book for me, is how it all comes together. You get the opening which I have quoted above, and are let into the secret of the novel, but in the journey you go through to find out how it is that our narrator was born as a girl and then as a boy is never something that you ever find yourself actively wondering. This I think is the greatest link to the epic, before we read these epic poems, we know what the outcome is. We know that at the end of the Odyssey Odysseus does get home safely, but we are enthralled none the less by the journey. The same can be said about Middlesex, we know what the outcome for our narrator is, but the journey of the story that takes us through Calliope's lineage, to how she became Cal is enthralling.
|One of the Michigan Murals by Diego Rivera|
But don't take my word for it, go and read it and let me know what you thought and felt.
If you've already read Middlesex, what did you think? Was it over-rated for you, or did you also revel in its dazzling originality?
P.S. if you are into analysing covers, the edition that I have pictured (which is the one I own) is explained from the bottom paragraph of page 329.