The Barnes & Noble Review
Jeffrey Eugenides kept a fairly low profile after his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, caused a stir in 1993. With Middlesex, a sprawling yet intimate novel that earns the turning of every one of its 500-plus pages, he proves that the time was very well spent. Imagine a cross between E. L. Doctorow's classic Ragtime and one of the multigenerational epics of James Michener. Better yet, don't approach this book with any preconceptions -- just have an open heart and mind plus a willingness to let a novelist who knows what he's doing break a few storytelling rules.
Raised as a girl by her second-generation Greek-American family, Calliope (now Cal) Stephanides is physiologically a hermaphrodite and is more male than female. That's not giving away much -- Cal explains it on the first page. What's remarkable is that a book can start with such a revelation and still manage to be full of surprises. Narrated by Cal, the story also shares the thoughts, feelings, and intimate details of the lives of Cal's grandparents, parents, and other family members. In this omniscient first-person mode, we get an epic family saga, a journey from 1920s Greece to 1960s Detroit to contemporary Europe -- one that leads to a remarkably satisfying conclusion. To understand anyone, Eugenides seems to be implying, we need to know not only his or her (or in this case, "his/her") inner thoughts, but also those of all the ancestors whose DNA has contributed to the mix that created him/her.
"Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times," begs Cal. But she/he has nothing to apologize for. It's exactly that willingness to take this rich and accessible story over the top that makes Eugenides' novel so complexly and wonderfully moving. Lou Harry
Without a doubt, this audio edition of Eugenides's long-awaited second novel (after The Virgin Suicides) represents an acme of the audiobook genre: the whole equals much more than the sum of its parts. This is simultaneously the tale of a gene passed down through three generations and the story of Calliope Stephanides, the recipient of that gene. Never quite feeling at home in her body, Callie discovered at the age of 14 that she is, in fact, genetically, if not completely anatomically, a boy. From this point on she becomes Cal, and it is Cal, the 41-year-old man, who narrates the story, dipping all the way back in history to the time of his grandparents' incestuous relationship in war-torn Turkey. Tabori's performance of the text is phenomenal. His somewhat high-register, wavering voice, reminiscent of a young Burgess Meredith, is completely convincing as both the young female Callie and the older male Cal. Not only are his interpretations of the characters astonishingly credible, but his internalization of the narrative is nothing short of amazing. Listeners will feel this exhilarating story is being told personally to them for the very first time. Additionally, the intro music at the beginning of each of the 28 sides is different, with each snippet offering a different style of music, reflecting the current timeline and mood of the story. This adds a subtle but wonderful effect. Simultaneous release with the FSG hardcover (Forecasts, July 1). (Sept.)
Eugenides's second novel (after The Virgin Suicides) opens "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl...in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy...in August of 1974." Thus starts the epic tale of how Calliope Stephanides is transformed into Cal. Spanning three generations and two continents, the story winds from the small Greek village of Smyrna to the smoggy, crime-riddled streets of Detroit, past historical events, and through family secrets. The author's eloquent writing captures the essence of Cal, a hermaphrodite, who sets out to discover himself by tracing the story of his family back to his grandparents. From the beginning, the reader is brought into a world rich in culture and history, as Eugenides extends his plot into forbidden territories with unique grace. His confidence in the story, combined with his sure prose, helps readers overcome their initial surprise and focus on the emotional revelation of the characters and beyond. Once again, Eugenides proves that he is not only a unique voice in modern literature but also well versed in the nature of the human heart. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/02.] - Rachel Collins, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-From the opening paragraph, in which the narrator explains that he was "born twice," first as a baby girl in 1960, then as a teenage boy in 1974, readers are aware that Calliope Stephanides is a hermaphrodite. To explain his situation, Cal starts in 1922, when his grandparents came to America. In his role as the "prefetal narrator," he tells the love story of this couple, who are brother and sister; his parents are blood relatives as well. Then he tells his own story, which is that of a female child growing up in suburban Detroit with typical adolescent concerns. Callie, as he is known then, worries because she hasn't developed breasts or started menstruating; her facial hair is blamed on her ethnicity, and she and her mother go to get waxed together. She develops a passionate crush on her best girlfriend, "the Object," and consummates it in a manner both detached and steamy. Then an accident causes Callie to find out what she's been suspecting-she's not actually a girl. The story questions what it is that makes us who we are and concludes that one's inner essence stays the same, even in light of drastic outer changes. Mostly, the novel remains a universal narrative of a girl who's happy to grow up but hates having to leave her old self behind. Readers will love watching the narrator go from Callie to Cal, and witnessing all of the life experiences that get her there.-Jamie Watson, Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Part Tristram Shandy, part Ishmael, part Holden Caulfield, Cal is a wonderfully engaging narrator. . . A deeply affecting portrait of one family's tumultuous engagement with the American twentieth century.” The New York Times
“Expansive and radiantly generous. . . Deliriously American.” The New York Times Book Review (cover review)
“A towering achievement. . . . [Eugenides] has emerged as the great American writer that many of us suspected him of being.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (cover review)
“A big, cheeky, splendid novel. . . it goes places few narrators would dare to tread. . . lyrical and fine.” The Boston Globe
“An epic. . . This feast of a novel is thrilling in the scope of its imagination and surprising in its tenderness.” People
“Unprecedented, astounding. . . . The most reliably American story there is: A son of immigrants finally finds love after growing up feeling like a freak.” San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“Middlesex is about a hermaphrodite in the way that Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel is about a teenage boy. . . A novel of chance, family, sex, surgery, and America, it contains multitudes.” Men's Journal
“Wildly imaginative. . . frequently hilarious and touching.” USA Today
Read an Excerpt
THE SILVER SPOON
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. Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study, "Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites," published in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology in 1975. Or maybe you've seen my photograph in chapter sixteen of the now sadly outdated Genetics and Heredity. That's me on page 578, standing naked beside a height chart with a black box covering my eyes.
My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver's license (from the Federal Republic of Germany) records my first name simply as Cal. I'm a former field hockey goalie, longstanding member of the Save-the-Manatee Foundation, rare attendant at the Greek Orthodox liturgy, and, for most of my adult life, an employee of the U.S. State Department. Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other. I've been ridiculed by classmates, guinea-pigged by doctors, palpated by specialists, and researched by the March of Dimes. A redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe fell in love with me, not knowing what I was. (Her brother liked me, too.) An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into myth; I've left my body in order to occupy others — and all this happened before I turned sixteen.
But now, at the age of forty-one, I feel another birth coming on. After, decades of neglect, I find myself thinking about departed great-aunts and -uncles, long-lost grandfathers, unknown fifth cousins, or, in the case ofan inbred family like mine, all those things in one. And so before it's too late I want to get it down for good: this roller-coaster ride of a single gene through time. Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome! Sing how it bloomed two and a half centuries ago on the slopes of Mount Olympus, while the goats bleated and the olives dropped. Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family. And sing how Providence, in the guise of a massacre, sent the gene flying again; how it blew like a seed across the sea to America, where it drifted through our industrial rains until it fell to earth in the fertile soil of my mother's own mid-western womb.
Sorry if I get a little Homeric at times. That's genetic, too.
Three months before I was born, in the aftermath of one of our elaborate Sunday dinners, my grandmother Desdemona Stephanides ordered my brother to get her silkworm box. Chapter Eleven had been heading toward the kitchen for a second helping of rice pudding when she blocked his way. At fifty-seven, with her short, squat figure and intimidating hairnet, my grandmother was perfectly designed for blocking people's paths. Behind her in the kitchen, the day's large female contingent had congregated, laughing and whispering. Intrigued, Chapter Eleven leaned sideways to see what was going on, but Desdemona reached out and firmly pinched his cheek. Having regained his attention, she sketched a rectangle in the air and pointed at the ceiling. Then, through her ill-fitting dentures, she said, "Go for yia yia, dolly mou."
Chapter Eleven knew what to do. He ran across the hall into the living room. On all fours he scrambled up the formal staircase to the second floor. He raced past the bedrooms along the upstairs corridor. At the far end was a nearly invisible door, wallpapered over like the entrance to a secret passageway. Chapter Eleven located the tiny doorknob level with his head and, using all his strength, pulled it open. Another set of stairs lay behind it. For a long moment my brother stared hesitantly into the darkness above, before climbing, very slowly now, up to the attic where my grandparents lived.
In sneakers he passed beneath the twelve damply newspapered birdcages suspended from the rafters. With a brave face he immersed himself in the sour odor of the parakeets, and in my grandparents' own particular aroma, a mixture of mothballs and hashish. He negotiated his way past my grandfather's book-piled desk and his collection of rebetika records. Finally, bumping into the leather ottoman and the circular coffee table made of brass, he found my grandparents' bed and, under it, the silkworm box.
Carved from olivewood, a little bigger than a shoe box, it had a tin lid perforated by tiny airholes and inset with the icon of an unrecognizable saint. The saint's face had been rubbed off, but the fingers of his right hand were raised to bless a short, purple, terrifically self-confident-looking mulberry tree. After gazing awhile at this vivid botanical presence, Chapter Eleven pulled the box from under the bed and opened it. Inside were the two wedding crowns made from rope and, coiled like snakes, the two long braids of hair, each tied with a crumbling black ribbon. He poked one of the braids with his index finger. Just then a parakeet squawked, making my brother jump, and he closed the box, tucked it under his arm, and carried it downstairs to Desdemona.
She was still waiting in the doorway. Taking the silkworm box out of his hands, she turned back into the kitchen. At this point Chapter Eleven was granted a view of the room, where all the women now fell silent. They moved aside to let Desdemona pass and there, in the middle of the linoleum, was my mother. Tessie Stephanides was leaning back in a kitchen chair, pinned beneath the immense, drum-tight globe of her pregnant belly. She had a happy, helpless expression on her face, which was flushed and hot. Desdemona set the silkworm box on the kitchen table and, opened the lid. She reached under the wedding crowns and the hair braids to come up with something Chapter Eleven hadn't seen: a silver spoon. She tied a piece of string to the spoon's handle. Then, stooping forward, she dangled the spoon over my mother's swollen belly. And, by extension, over me.
Up until now Desdemona had had a perfect record: twenty-three correct guesses. Shed known that Tessie was going to be Tessie. She'd predicted the sex of my brother and of all the babies of her friends at church. The only children whose genders she hadn't divined were her own, because it was bad luck for a mother to plumb the mysteries of her own womb. Fearlessly, however, she plumbed my mother's. After some initial hesitation, the spoon swung north to south, which meant that I was going to be a boy.
Splay-legged in the chair, my mother tried to smile. She didn't want a boy. She had one already. In fact, she was so certain I was going to be a girl that she'd picked out only one name for me: Calliope. But when my grandmother shouted in Greek, "A boy!" the cry went around the room, and out into the hall, and across the hall into the living room where the men were arguing politics. And my mother, hearing it repeated so many times, began to believe it might be true.
As soon as the cry reached my father, however, he marched into the kitchen to tell his mother that, this time at least, her spoon was wrong. "And how you know so much?" Desdemona asked him. To which he replied what many Americans of his generation would have:
"It's science, Ma."
Ever since they had decided to have another child — the diner was doing well and Chapter Eleven was long out of diapers — Milton and Tessie had been in agreement that they wanted a daughter. Chapter Eleven had just turned five years old. He'd recently found a dead bird in the yard, bringing it into the house to show his mother. He liked shooting things, hammering things, smashing things, and wrestling with his father. In such a masculine household, Tessie had begun to feel like the odd woman out and saw herself in ten years' time imprisoned in a world of hubcaps and hernias. My mother pictured a daughter as a counterinsurgent: a fellow lover of lapdogs, a seconder of proposals to attend the Ice Capades. In the spring of 1959, when discussions of my fertilization got under way, my mother couldn't foresee that women would soon be burning their brassieres by the thousand. Hers were padded, stiff, fire-retardant. As much as Tessie loved her son, she knew there were certain things she'd be able to share only with a daughter.
On his morning drive to work, my father had been seeing visions of an irresistibly sweet, dark-eyed little girl. She sat on the seat beside him — mostly during stoplights — directing questions at his patient, all-knowing ear. "What do you call that thing, Daddy?" 'That? That's the Cadillac seal." "What's the Cadillac seal?" "Well, a long time ago, there was a French explorer named Cadillac, and he was the one who discovered Detroit. And that seal was his family seal, from France." "What's France?" "France is a country in Europe." "What's Europe?" "It's a continent, which is like a great big piece of land, way, way bigger than a country. But Cadillacs don't come from Europe anymore, kukla. They come from right here in the good old U.S.A." The light turned green and he drove on. But my prototype lingered. She was there at the next light and the next. So pleasant was her company that my father, a man loaded with initiative, decided to see what he could do to turn his vision into reality.
Thus: for some time now, in the living room where the men discussed politics, they had also been discussing the velocity of sperm. Peter Tatakis, "Uncle Pete" as we called him, was a leading member of the debating society that formed every week on our black love seats. A lifelong bachelor, he had no family in America and so had become attached to ours. Every Sunday he arrived in his wine-dark Buick, a tall, prune-faced, sad-seeming man with an incongruously vital head of wavy hair. He was not interested in children. A proponent of the Great Books series — which he had read twice — Uncle Pete was engaged with serious thought and Italian opera. He had a passion, in history, for Edward Gibbon, and, in literature, for the journals of Madame de Staël. He liked to quote that witty lady's opinion on the German language, which held that German wasn't good for conversation because you had to wait to the end of the sentence for the verb, and so couldn't interrupt. Uncle Pete had wanted to become a doctor, but the "catastrophe" had ended that dream. In the United States, he'd put himself through two years of chiropractic school, and now ran a small office in Birmingham with a human skeleton he was still paying for in installments. In those days, chiropractors had a somewhat dubious reputation. People didn't come to Uncle Pete to free up their kundalini. He cracked necks, straightened spines, and made custom arch supports out of foam rubber. Still, he was the closest thing to a doctor we had in the house on those Sunday afternoons. As a young man he'd had half his stomach surgically removed, and now after dinner always drank a Pepsi-Cola to help digest his meal. The soft drink had been named for the digestive enzyme pepsin, he sagely told us, and so was suited to the task.
Copyright © 2002 Jeffrey Eugenides