I really wanted to adore Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex. My reasoning went, "The narrator is an intersex person! It concerns race and gender relations in mid-century Detroit! What's not to love?" And I don't want to paint things too bleakly: I did really enjoy it in parts, and even stayed up far past my bedtime one night reading it. But, disappointingly due to my high hopes, there were other aspects of the book that left me incredibly frustrated, and overall I ended up thinking it was just okay. I feel especially down about this because in a way my frustrations with the book weren't anything it did wrong per se: it's your standard meaty, well-plotted family epic treading the boundary between superstition, coincidence and fate; old world and new world. I've loved many books that operate on the same basic set of standards, from John Irving's Cider House Rules and Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, to Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Peter Carey's Illywhacker. The things that bothered me about Middlesex were also present in all four of those, and it makes me sad to think that if I went back to re-read them, the love would be gone. Perhaps my frustration with Eugenides's novel was just the product of poor timing on my part, or maybe I really am getting tired of certain formulaic traits of The Modern Family Epic.

But before we get to all that, let's talk about what worked for me. Eugenides is a brisk, readable storyteller, and our narrator Cal(lie) Stephanides takes us on a multi-textured journey that begins in a working-class neighborhood in 1960s Detroit, loops back to a tiny village on the border of Greece and Turkey where an incestuous young brother and sister are caught in the crossfire of a border dispute; follows them to Smyrna, onto the boat to America, and through the lean rum-running years of the Great Depression. Flashing back and flashing forward, we get to know Cal(lie)'s parents during the years of World War II, and follow the birth and development of their second child, whom they mistakenly believe to be a girl until her fourteenth year. We get, of course, Callie's own journey of discovery as well, knowing from the first page that "she" is now living as a man in Berlin, but waiting to find out how and why.

An interesting plot, featuring strong evocations of place and time, and occasional passages of insight that impressed me. For example, I love that Cal, balancing the 1970s nurture-heavy theories on sexual development against the 1990s fad for evolutionary biology, writes of himself near the end of the novel,

[I]t's not as simple as that. I don't fit into any of these theories. Not the evolutionary biologists' and not Luce's either. My psychological makeup doesn't accord with the essentialism popular in the intersex movement, either. Unlike other so-called male pseudohermaphrodites who have been written about in the press, I never felt out of place being a girl. I still don't feel entirely at home among men. Desire made me cross over to the other side, desire and the facticity of my body. [...] free will is making a comeback. Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.

I like Cal's refusal of dualities here: he doesn't identify as a man who was mistakenly raised as a girl, but as a person who was first a girl and then a man, and at the same time as someone whose gender was never as simple as one or the other. I like the reminder of human complexity, and that the divisions we create (man/woman; black/white; straight/gay) are not as cut-and-dried as we often like to believe.

But while the "what" of the novel was engaging to me, the "how" of it often left me unimpressed and even annoyed with its cookie-cutter adherence to generic conventions. Let's talk about the Modern Family Epic, and how Middlesex is pretty much a carbon copy of any other example of this genre one might pick up:

To begin with the small stuff, the Modern Family Epic gravitates toward quirky names and nicknames. Whereas Hotel New Hampshire gives us Susie the Bear, and The Moor's Last Sigh features Aires-pronounced-Irish, Middlesex has both Chapter Eleven Stephanides (Cal's brother's actual name) and the Obscure Object of Desire (Callie's nickname for her adolescent crush, which struck me as way overly cute, even if it is taken from a Luis Buñuel film).

So too, the Modern Family Epic can't resist allegorical coincidences. John Irving makes the valid point that real life is full of coincidences, and that people only look askance at them when they crop up in novels. I accept that this is true. Nonetheless, I couldn't help groaning at the level of cutesy coincidence present in Middlesex. "OF COURSE," I would groan: "OF COURSE the family moves into a house on Middlesex Street - because Callie is in the middle of two sexes." "OF COURSE Callie is cast as Tiriesias in the school play - he was first one gender, then the other." And so on. This kind of touch seems designed as an invitation to the reader to chuckle with self-satisfied irony at what we know and the characters don't, which I found vaguely annoying.

In a related point, The Modern Family Epic loves multiple big events to happen at the same exact moment, which often allows the narrator to tell of the simultaneously-unfolding developments through a kind of split-screen, back-and-forth cutting technique. Oftentimes, there ends up being a dire significance to events which happen at the same time in these books; so, for example, Rushdie's Midnight's Children bestows all the children born at the stroke of midnight on the day of India's independence with the ability to communicate telepathically. In Middlesex this happens A LOT. Callie's parents are not only related to each other through multiple blood ties, but are conceived on the same exact night. One of them is born on the same exact night, at the same exact time, that both their fathers are engaged in a dangerous car crash on the ice around the US-Canada border. Callie's own birth magically coincides with her grandfather's loss of speech due to his first major stroke. Callie is saved from having to go on a dreaded Greek vacation by the convenient Turkish invasion of Cyprus on the very eve of her departure. Et cetera. Maybe this technique is supposed to endow the narrative with a greater narrative tension and sort of epic quality, but in this particular case it didn't work for me.

Similarly, the Modern Family Epic almost always brings the plot around full-circle by the ending. I usually don't mind this device, which in any case is so pervasive that I would have been shocked had Middlesex not employed it. What did bother me, though, was the excessive use of flash-forwarding in the first two-thirds of the novel, and how, in the last third, the flash-forwarding is replaced by Cal's frequent explicit reminders of past plot-points and how they relate to what's currently going on. To take the first point: I think flash-forwarding (basically heavy-handed foreshadowing, such as "In a few more years I would come to regret the decision to enroll in the Army, but at the time it seemed the easiest path to a college education") can be effective in moderation, but damn, the Modern Family Epic loves this technique. I actually had to stop reading Midnight's Children because it was so pervasive that I felt I knew the whole story with 200 pages remaining of the novel. Middlesex isn't quite that bad, but it does play free and easy with the flash-forwarding. But THEN, when Eugenides is wrapping up all his plot-based loose ends and bringing the characters back around to confront the mistakes and foibles of their forebears (like you do), he has Cal write stuff like this:

Eight years earlier, policemen had raided a blind pig on Twelfth Street in Detroit. Now, at the start of 1975, they raided Sixty-Niners.

Because we wouldn't remember the previous, rather pivotal police raid without being reminded? Just a few pages later it happens again:

Back in 1933, a disembodied voice had spoken to my grandmother through the heating grate. Now, forty-two years later, a disguised voice spoke to my father over the phone.

and AGAIN, on the very next page:

At this same train station my grandparents had arrived a half century earlier. Lefty and Desdemona, one time only, had revealed their secret here to Sourmelina; and now their son, who had never learned it, was pulling in behind the station, also secretly.

As the end of the book nears, this happens with increasing frequency. "Yes, Mr. Eugenides," I wanted to shout, "I actually HAVE read a novel before." I mean, really—does the author have so little confidence in his reader that he feels he must pound us over the head with every little parallel presented in the text? Has he no faith that we would be sufficiently perceptive to pick up on the "secrecy," "history repeats itself," and "misguided authority" themes on our own, without having Cal put up big flashing arrows all around them? I guess that's what really irked me about Middlesex: I'm a better reader than I felt it gave me credit for, and I believe many others are, too.

Like I said, it's not that I harbor any intrinsic dislike for the Modern Family Epic genre. But Middlesex seems to conform to all the generic stereotypes without adding anything unexpected—except Cal(lie)'s gender, which we know about from page one. Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh follows these conventions, but adds to them a series of brain-bending plot twists that keep the reader on her toes. Zadie Smith's White Teeth conforms to them, but contributes in addition an edgy, uncomfortable humor that would make people from just about any cultural background laugh with guilty recognition. Peter Carey's Illywhacker features some of them, but also has a first-person narrator who admits to being a compulsive liar, which allows Carey to play with the conventions even while making use of them. I'm just not sure what Middlesex brings to the table in addition to this set of conventions I've seen so many times before.

Which begs the question, I'm sure, of the value of novelty versus that of tradition. Why should a book offer anything new, necessarily? Am I just looking for a gimmick? If it ain't broke, and so on. I like to think I'm not looking for anything as simple as a gimmick, but I do value freshness, subtlety, and a certain rebelliousness around genre in my reading—particularly my contemporary reading—and personally, I found Middlesex a bit lacking in all three. Possibly, though, it was unfair of me to expect something outside Eugenides's intentions, and possibly my reaction to the book was a product of reading it at the same time as Anne Carson's Oresteia translations and Nox and John Ashbery's Notes from the Air, all of which blew my mind rather than leaving it only lukewarm.


Middlesex was my eighth and final book for the Challenge that Dare not Speak its Name. It's too bad that the challenge ended on a negative note, because I really enjoyed it as a whole!


  • I remember being distinctly displeased with this one, but I'm not sure why. I read it pre-blogging, so no record of my thoughts! But I loved your breakdown of it...I just read Moor's Last Sigh a couple months ago and adored it, so I think it would stand up to a reread. I think there's a big difference between writing a book in the tradition of a certain style (in this case, Modern Family Epic) and just doing 'connect-the-dots' kind of writing. The latter annoys me so much! It feels like it's missing that vital spark.

    Also, I can't stand it when authors don't trust me to understand their fictions. It's like they just can't bear to let go, lol.

  • Even though I'm disappointed to read this review, because I absolutely loved Middlesex, it has been a long time since I read it. So perhaps I would have the same reaction if I read it now, but I'm not sure. I don't know that I ever expected Middlesex to be realistic, or expected it to do something other than play into those tropes of the sweeping family epic (which happens to be one of my favorite "genres", so perhaps I'm a little biased). I find all the things you listed comforting, not annoying. So I guess all I'm saying here is that I understand where you're coming from, but I wholeheartedly disagree. And that makes me smile at how books can be read by the same person and have two totally different reactions.

  • I equally wanted to love this and could not. Incest squicks me out (although, full disclosure, I loooooved the plotline on Guiding Light in 2005-2007ish where the two cousins were in love HA HA HA it was amazing). But I never finished this one, as it wasn't doing it for me at all. I didn't like The Virgin Suicides either.

  • Funny, I'm nearly done listening to this on tape. :) I haven't read many Modern Family Epic's, as it's a genre that I subconsciously steer away from. Don't know why. So while I'm not as aware of the cookie cutter aspect of Middlesex that you describe, I definitely have been irked by the exact same lack of faith in my ability as a reader! Seriously, even if the book is...well, in my case something like 10 discs long...I can actually manage to keep all those loose ends in my head! I'm enjoying it overall I guess, but at the same time it kind of just adds to my odd aversion to this type of story. Still, some of the other books you mentioned sound interesting, especially the Rushdie one.

  • Having not read this one, I can't comment with my opinion; however, your thoughts on the constant reminders make me wonder if that was an authorial or editorial choice. Perhaps Eugenides trusted you more to be a good reader, but his editor wanted to assure a wider readership. You are likely not the average reader. A publisher wants you (the super-accomplished reader) AND the OPRAH reader to embrace his/her books and not be frustrated by the multiple plot points. So, maybe those "reminders" were added to coddle that other reader.

  • I felt a similar disappointment about this book. I thought it was enjoyable enough, but it didn't quite live up to all the fuss. Most of it read to me like a Modern Family Epic, and I do enjoy a Modern Family Epic now and then, but I didn't feel this had anything new to offer, except for Cal's being intersexed, and that doesn't even become important until the last half of the book, which felt overly rushed. I thought the whole book had a sort of thrown together feeling, as if it were two separate novels cobbled together.

    Now reading your review, I wonder if all that flash forwarding and looping back was Eugenides's way of making what were actually fairly tenuous connections obvious, like he was trying too hard to make two loosely connected stories into one whole.

  • I read this book when it first came out--with high hopes because of the subject matter and because one of my best friends loved it. Like you, I wasn't blown away. I think I would have said before reading your ending that if almost felt too gimicky--that is, I felt like the author was using tricks to try to manipulate my reading. I prefer books where I get to build my own reactions.

    Interestingly, I'm reading Edward Jones's The Known World right now and I'm occasionally have a similar reaction. At other times, I'm blown away. I'm just starting it so I'm eager to see how I feel later. Have you read it?

  • Eva: Glad to hear you loved Moor's Last Sigh, and relieved at the idea that it would stand the test of my current crankiness about this genre. You're right that there's a difference between adherence to a tradition and blind conformity - a good thing to keep in mind and makes me feel less bad for panning Middlesex based on its generic predictability!

    Lu: That's really the beauty of art, isn't it - that two people can experience the same artwork and come away with such different reactions. I can totally understand the feeling of comfort gleaned from generic conventions. The funny thing is, the Modern Family Epic is one of my preferred genres, too - or at least has been in the past! That's part of what made me sad to feel annoyed by the way Eugenides uses the conventions here, that I've loved them elsewhere. But maybe it was just something about this book in particular that rubbed me the wrong way.

  • Jenny: LOL, your confession about Guiding Light is hilarious! But yeah, if you can't handle incest this is definitely not the book for you. I read Virgin Suicides back in the mid-90s shortly after it came out, and remember almost nothing about it as a book, but I've seen the film more recently and it struck me as slightly anti-feminist. I mean, it's supposed to be about how the boys fetishize this group of self-destructive girls, but it seems to me that in actuality the movie ITSELF fetishizes them. All the romantic, washed-out summer images, etc. It left me grumpy. Maybe Eugenides and I just don't get along. :-P

    Sarah: I KNOW, right? Ugh, it's so validating to hear you agree about the lack of faith in his readers. Especially when he reminds us of scenes that were extremely important to plot development earlier on, like the police raid that started the race riot in Detroit. So annoying!

  • Sara: Interesting point about editor versus author. It's definitely true that I'm not the average reader, and this is one of those posts when I was particularly glad to be a blogger and not a newspaper reviewer required to return a "GOOD" or "BAD" verdict, since maybe other readers would find the things that annoyed me either comforting (as Lu suggests) or plain helpful! Personally I was gnashing my teeth by the end.

    Teresa: Ah, interesting - your theory about the forced-ness of the connections Eugenides is trying to make seems pretty perceptive to me. I saw another reviewer write that he imagined Eugenides coming to his agent with a 150-page book about an adolescent hermaphrodite, and the agent going "This is pretty good, Jeff, but what's really selling right now are hefty family sagas about the immigrant experience - why don't you tack on 300 more pages of back-story and call me in the morning?" There may be something to that.

  • LifetimeReader: Your comment "I prefer books where I get to build my own reactions" expresses my feelings exactly. Eugenides's narrative techniques did seem over-the-top and somewhat manipulative. I haven't read (or actually even heard of!) Jones's book, but I'll be interested to hear where you come out at the end of it. :-)

  • I always confused this one with We Were the Mulvanys in my head for some unknown reason. While the prospect of an intersex character intrigues me, all those coincidences would just drive me nuts. And I'm generally not a big fan of Modern Family Epics, so . . . pass.

  • I've not read Eugenides but my husband has. He thought the writing in Middlesex was really good but the story in Virigin Suicides better and wishes Eugenides could have written Virgin Suicides second and Middlesex first. Maybe that's why I haven't gotten around to reading either. I enjoyed your Modern Family Epic discussion.

  • EL Fay: Oh, the coincidences! ;-) Yes, I'd say if you're not a big fan of the genre this is definitely one to skip, although it might be a good choice for someone who really loves this type of book, since it hews so closely to conventions.

    Stefanie: Glad you enjoyed my rant on the Modern Family Epic! Interesting about your husband's reactions to the two novels. I have some reservations about the story of Virgin Suicides and how it feels to me like it's fetishizing self-destructive young women even as it pretends to critique people who fetishize them, but though I read it years ago I don't remember it well enough to make a strong argument. :-P In any case, Eugenides: maybe not for me.

  • Yoiks. I have been putting off Middlesex in fear of it not meeting my expectations. Well, in fact, I hadn't really wanted to read it until I began to be convinced by other bloggers. But then The Cider House Rules is my fave Irving (Hotel New Hampshire not far off) and The Moor's Last Sigh is my absolute fave Rushdie, so even more fearful now that I'll feel the same about Middlesex as you. But I'll give it a whirl still and see..

  • I read this one a long time ago and remember enjoying it, but can't remember any specifics. I wonder what I would think of it now. I tend to find family epics of the sort you describe here tiresome these days. If someone calls a book "sweeping" or a "saga" I don't want to read it! I'm not sure why I feel that way, though -- maybe it's just getting impatient with the traditional novel form.

  • Claire: I almost want to insist that this one is objectively not as good as Moor's Last Sigh. But there are probably those who would disagree with me. :-) My biggest fear about my reaction to Middlesex, though, is that it means I wouldn't like my own favorites from this genre on a re-read...but I can't believe I wouldn't like that Rushdie!

    Dorothy: I know what you mean about getting impatient with the traditional novel form. I don't feel that way about, for example Dickens or Fielding, but when I read modern novels whose form seems so predictable, it makes me cranky.

  • This is one I've never had any desire to read, pretty much because I've guessed I might end up feeling something like you did--but it sounds even worse than I would have expected. I think the repetition would have bothered me a ton. I always consider these things the perils of so much contemporary fiction. That's why I now have a few authors I feel I can trust a bit more and stick with them.

  • Nicole: The repetition really did feel over the top to me. I like to think I still do enjoy this genre but that this book was a particularly un-subtle example of it that just rubbed me the wrong way. But if you tend to be bothered by the traits above, definitely do continue to steer clear.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography