After living in Jacksonville for eight months already (holy HECK), I’ve realized that I still barely get out of the house except to hang out with my husband, which is not a bad thing in the least but still I need some more friend-type things. So I’ve joined a book club! Huzzah! And I made it really easy on myself by waiting to join until they had picked a book I’ve already read, this here Middlesex.
Of course, I read it like seven years ago and so I had to read it again, but if you’ve ever read this book you will understand that it goes much more quickly and easily the second time.
It’s amazing, re-reading a book. When I decided to join in on this discussion, I was like, “Oh, Middlesex. That’s the one about the girl with the boy chromosomes who runs away and joins some crazy freak show. And yet I remember liking this?” I do remember liking it quite a lot, but it wasn’t until I started reading it again that I remembered the other, oh, 99 percent of the book which is the actual good portion of it.
Because while Middlesex is, in fact, about a girl with boy chromosomes, and toward the end our fine protagonist does temporarily join a freak show after running away, these are not really the things the book is about. It starts off right from the beginning to be a sweeping epic tale of mythology and family and what it means to be any kind of person in a culture predominated by dichotomies.
Obviously I don’t remember how I read this the first time, but I can tell you that my fellow book-clubbers were generally dissatisfied with the first half of the novel, which focuses heavily on our fine protagonist’s grandparents and parents and the family history that leads to the birth of Calliope Stephanides, she of the XY chromosomes and love for “girly” things. After this opening, after Eugenides gets to talking about Calliope’s life, that’s when the story starts moving along at a faster pace as we try to catch up to Calliope-the-narrator’s present-day life.
But actually I rather liked this first half, maybe because I knew I’d eventually get to the more exciting things and could relax and enjoy the writing. I could see more of Eugenides’ work on making a mythology, putting the grandparents up on a hill and the vices at the bottom, setting them off on a seafaring voyage in which they fashioned new lives for themselves, meeting other secret-keepers and shape-shifters and disembodied voices — it was all just so perfectly Greek.
The second half is more like your average novel, as it gets into the more “important” themes of the story, which include the fight between Nature and Nurture and the question of how to be true to yourself. And then there’s a freak show, which gets back into that mythological aspect with now-Cal playing Hermaphroditus. And I hadn’t thought of it until just now, but it is perhaps fitting that people (including me, re: the freak show) had a harder time accepting the less “normal” aspects of this book.
Overall, then, I think that this book does accomplish what it sets out to accomplish, and does it with some really wonderful writing and imagery (and some clunkers, of course, but that’s to be expected). And it’s really perfect for a book club discussion.
Recommendation: For fans of mythology, science vs. tradition, and gender and sexuality issues.
(A to Z Challenge)