Today for Gen Reads, we are talking about another book that I have read many times, Middlesex by Jefferey Eugenides.
This book took me by complete surprise, I had read The Virgin Suicides and enjoyed it but to me Middlesex is light years ahead.
It is so engrossing and beautifully written, truly a breathtaking piece of literature.
“So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides 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 l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, 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 Callie 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. “(book jacket)
The main character Cal/Calliope is from a traditional Greek family and the story truly begins not in Detroit where Calliope is born but in a tiny village in Greece. It is there that Calliope’s grandparents Desdemona and “Lefty” transform themselves from brother and sister into husband and wife as they flee from war-torn Turkey. On a ship that takes them to America, the siblings morph into a young couple in love, the first of many transformations that take place in the story. I would never say that incest is romantic but this book somehow takes a brother and sister falling in love and makes it beautiful and tender. Her grandparent’s union is a secret but due to genetics, their coupling will mean that two generations later a baby will be born who is a girl but not a girl.
While Middlesex is primarily the story of Calliope/Cal and all the events that lead up to her birth and onward to the re/birth of Cal, the book is also a story about race relations in Detroit, first loves, and the science of sex and gender. The story is rich with culture and is incredibly evocative and lyrical. As Calliope/Cal grows up, she senses that something is “not right” and at the age of 14, Calliope will become Cal in a series of both painful and humorous events. Coming of age is a theme that comes up many times within the book and Eugenides really captures those graceless, strange years of being a teenager perfectly.
Overall it is a tremendous tale. I have reread it a number of times and every time I am done with the book I find myself wishing there was a sequel so I could continue reading about Cal’s life and just revel in Eugenides’ writing a little longer.
These are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:
“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.”
“I went into the desert to forget about you. But the sand was the color of your hair. The desert sky was the color of your eyes. There was nowhere I could go that wouldn’t be you.”
“It was the custom in those days for passengers leaving for America to bring balls of yarn on deck. Relatives on the pier held the loose ends. As the “Giulia” blew its horn and moved away from the dock, a few hundred strings of yarn stretched across the water. People shouted farewells, waved furiously, held up babies for last looks they wouldn’t remember. Propellers churned; handkerchiefs fluttered, and, up on deck, the balls of yarn began to spin. Red, yellow, blue, green, they untangled toward the pier, slowly at first, one revolution every ten seconds, then faster and faster as the boat picked up speed. Passengers held the yarn as long as possible, maintaining the connection to faces disappearing onshore. But finally, one by one, the balls ran out. The strings of yarn flew free, rising on the breeze.”
“I hadn’t gotten old enough yet to realize that living sends a person not into the future but back into the past, to childhood and before birth, finally, to commune with the dead. You get older, you puff on the stairs, you enter the body of your father. From there it’s only a quick jump to your grandparents, and then before you know it you’re time-traveling. In this life we grow backwards.”