Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Look! The WHOLE cover! (via)
Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2002

It's about: Cal Stephanides is a hermaphrodite. He begins his story with his grandparents (who were also siblings!), when they left their home in Turkey as immigrants to Detriot in the 1920s. Cal follows them as they settle into their new lives and have a son, Cal's dad Milton. He follows Milton and his mom Tessie through their lives. About halfway through the book, Cal is born and begins his narrative. Yeah. This summary doesn't really do the book justice. Here's the summary on Goodreads. This book is hard to summarize.

I thought:
Just like all y'all, I loved this book. Cal was such a charismatic and loveable narrator. I loved Eugenides' cinematic style. I read/listened to the audiobook of Eugenides most recent novel The Marriage Plot last month, and I was surprised and delighted by how different this book was. Absolutely a sign of a great writing.

I have to thank Christina for her excellent reviews of Jeffrey Euginides two other books, The Virgin Suicides and The Marriage Plot, which convinced me to finally read Middlesex - Eugenides' most popular book (and which, if you are familiar with the book blogosphere, is constantly being raved about.)

Now, Christina and I often have similar taste, but there is one important place where we diverge. We've discussed this a few times. In this story, Eudenides inserts a few little quirky details and moments that are not magical, but definitely do not feel "realistic." (The one that stuck out to me was when Cal's dad would play songs on his clarinet up against his mom's skin, and this, supposedly, is how they fell in love.)

I realize that because this is a novel, it's ok for authors to insert details like this - they are creating their own little world, after all, in which anything can happen. Because of the nature of fiction, every author of any fictional work is inherently asking the reader for a suspension of disbelief. Every reader has a different threshold, however, and mine just happens to be very low. (Great discussion of suspension of disbelief here, if you're interested.)

One author who masters these moments is Jonathan Safran Foer, whom I strongly dislike. Christina loves him, though, and I respect that. We decided to call these quirkly little moments "Foerish" moments. I'm not a fan. Christina is. What do you think?

Moving beyond this, though, I was extremely impressed with Eugenides' style. It felt like a movie - the narrative zoomed in and out, there were montages, moments when time went backwards and sped forward. It was cool and it kept me interested, even when the story wasn't at its most excited moments. Very impressive.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf. Besides the few Foerish moments, I loved the rest of the book. It's going straight on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: Pick this one up if you feel like you need a new favorite book.

Warnings: Meh. There's some sex and stuff. I think there's a few swear words.

Favorite excerpts:
"The streets were still full of trees, bare in winter, so that we could see all the way to the frozen river. I was thinking how amazing it was that the world contained so many lives. Out in these streets people were embroiled in a thousand matters, money problems, love problems, school problems. People were falling in love, getting married, going to drug rehab, learning how to ice-skate, getting bifocals, studying for exams, trying on clothes, getting their hair cut, and getting born. And in some houses people were getting old and sick and were dying, leaving others to grieve. It was happening all the time, unnoticed, and it was the thing that really mattered."

"Aside from their blinding brightness, there was another odd thing about Milton's home movies: like Hitchcock, he always appeared in them. The only way to check the amount of film left in the camera was by reading the counter inside the lens. In the middle of Christmas scenes or birthday parties there always came a moment when Milton's eye would fill the screen. So that now, as I quickly try to sketch my early years, what comes back most clearly is just that: the brown orb of my father's sleepy, bearish eye. A postmodern touch in our domestic cinema, pointing up artifice, calling attention to mechanics. (And bequeathing me my aesthetic.) Milton's eye regarded us. It blinked. An eye as big as the Christ Pantacrator's at church, it was better than any mosaic. It was a living eye, the cornea a little bloodshot, the eyelashes luxuriant, the skin underneath coffee-stained and pouchy."

What I'm reading next: The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Can't get enough of him!