Reading Buddies Discussion: “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides

by Erin on October 14, 2011

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Wow, guys. Middlesex. There is so much to discuss in this book — even just the first half — that I hardly know where to begin. How about with a spoiler warning? They’re fair game here, so if you don’t like them, best to skip this post!

For the wrap-up post in two weeks, I’ll focus more on facts and such, but for today, I want to gush a bit, and to share my impressions.

I went into Middlesex knowing more about the novel’s premise than I usually do. No way, though, could I have imagined the intricate story, the entrancing writing, the feeling of destiny unfurling that saturates this novel. I am listening to it on audio, and I am about half way finished (the family just moved to Middlesex). That’s only 9 or so discs, which, really, isn’t that long. But I feel like I’ve spent forever with Cal, known this charismatic, eloquent, intriguing person my whole life.

It’s less like I’m hearing a summary of someone’s life and more like I’ve lived through it all. I am blown away by all the things Jeffrey Eugenides has accomplished in Middlesex. I love Cal’s voice, the interplay between past and present, the exploration of one family’s immigrant experience, the elaborate family history and the way Eugenides has woven the recessive gene’s own lineage into it.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (cover)One aspect of Middlesex in particular that fascinates me is Eugenides’ treatment of Detroit. In many ways, the novel feels as much like a history of the city as it does the story of the Stephanides family. From the heyday of the auto manufacturers to the race riots (so far), Eugenides’ vivid portrait of a city I’m used to thinking of as declining has captivated my attention. I’ve heard people talk about how wonderful the descriptions of Detroit are in Middlesex are, but now I feel like I know what they mean. I’ve also been enjoying how the advancing years are reflected in the Stephanides family’s lifestyle: cars, clothing, hobbies, and so forth. It’s been giving me a history lesson in the best sort of way.

I worried at first about how I’d react to Cal knowing so many things he could not possibly have known — precise details about Desdemona and Lefty, for instance, when they were young. It’s rare I can get comfortable with that sort of narration. Turns out in this case I’m not bothered at all. There’s a sort of mythic quality to the story, I think, so that I find myself just accepting Cal’s extensive knowledge as part of the package. At the same time, somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, I keep forgetting I’m reading a novel!

The audiobook is phenomenal. Several bloggers urged me to go the audio route even though I own a print copy of the book, and I am so glad I listened to their advice. Kristoffer Tabori, the narrator, has the pacing and dramatics down pat. His reading style matches Eugenides’ writing to create that rare alchemy in which a main character absolutely leaps off the page. It’s so easy to become completely absorbed. A bonus is that I don’t have to stumble over the foreign names! The only weird thing to me is the music in the recording. I think it was well chosen, and it would not bother me if I could figure out what it signifies! It doesn’t denote chapter or CD breaks but seems to come in the middle of thoughts or stories. My only guess is that Middlesex was on cassette before it made it to CD and that the music corresponds to the end of each side. I know several of you went the audio route this time around as well and am curious to hear how it’s going for you.

I feel that I am rambling. I’ll turn it over to you: if you’re reading or have read Middlesex, what are your thoughts? What would you like to discuss? Let’s converse in the comments!

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37 comments
anothercookiecrumbles
anothercookiecrumbles

I really enjoyed this book - the history of Detroit, of the family immigration, family traditions (which way will the spoon hang?) and finally/obviously, Cal's story. While I didn't listen to the audio book, but lost myself in the print copy, I raced through the book in a couple of days, completely engrossed in the story.

I've read The Virgin Suicides as well, which was a good book, but I didn't really appreciate it that much, despite listening to the soundtrack (it's a great soundtrack!!) while reading the book. I can't quite put my finger on what it was, but there was something about the book that made me feel a tad uncomfortable.

However, I'm looking forward to his new release as well. Fingers crossed that it'll meet expectations, if not exceed them.

Emma
Emma

I loved Middlesex. I'd heard vague references as to what it was about before I read it that didn't interest me, but I found a copy in a thrift store and couldn't put it down. I am SO glad I found it.

I think my favorite part of the book was the organization of the story. Beginning with his/her conception and then tracing back, back, back to another continent and another time. He balanced historical details with characterization and plot and created a novel that is impossible to put down once you begin.

....Now I apparently have to go read The Marriage Plot too. Thanks a lot ;-)

-Emma

P.S. I also love that he only publishes one book a decade. Of course it takes that much time to create writing so beautiful and complex as his!

Ryan
Ryan

I really liked the ease and grace in which Eugenides treated otherwise extremely taboo subjects. Instead of turning away (or staring at, for that matter) these issues, the reader develops a real compassion for this family. That's quite an accomplishment. I shudder to think what may have happened had Irving Welsh written this story.

Nadine Nys
Nadine Nys

I have read Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides and loved them both, for the plot, the characters, and the way Eugenides tells a story. I will definitely have to read The Marriage Plot too. I am glad that you are enjoying the read.

Ash
Ash

So glad you love this book! I wrote a very rambly review when I read it too. There just isn't a better way to talk about Jeffrey Eugenides' writing. I'm reading The Marriage Plot right now and I've waited for that book to come out so very long. I hope you'll read more by him!

Zeteticat
Zeteticat

"...the feeling of destiny unfurling that saturates this novel."

That's a perfect description! I am thoroughly enjoying this, though I am only about 30% through. I only just managed to get my discussion post up! I'm glad everyone else is liking it as well. The music in the audio isn't bothering me so much - I've listened to some audiobooks that totally overdo it with the weird music, which kind of ruins it for me, but this one doesn't seem to go too terribly overboard. The timing of the musical interludes is a bit odd, though.

Deb
Deb

I have the audio book and the e-book on my iPod. I am listening to this and reading along with it. I love this book so far. Just got through the race riots. There is a lot to this book. I know what you mean about the history in is this book. I feel sometimes like I want to go and research the Greek-Turkish history. I know this book is on the 1001 list and that is where I first heard of it.

Em (Love YA Lit)
Em (Love YA Lit)

I read this so long ago, that I'd have a tough time really discussing it, but there are specific scenes, moments, feelings, that will likely stick with me forever. Loved this one. Will surely read again someday.

Vishy
Vishy

I didn't read your post, because I was scared of spoilers, Erin. But I want to read this book by Eugenides, because I am reading Eugenides' 'The Marriage Plot' now and I am loving it. Eugenides rocks! I can't believe that I haven't read his books yet. He also looks like a writer who writes only one book in a decade and a new book release of his must be an event. One of my friends, whose literary taste I admire very much, told me that she loved 'Middlesex' more than 'The Marriage Plot'. I am loving 'The Marriage Plot' so much, that I can only imagine how 'Middlesex' will be. So, I will write a proper comment to your post, after reading 'Middlesex'. Happy Reading!

Kailana
Kailana

I loved this book. I recently tried to read another book that dealt with the same subject matter and it just was not nearly as good as this one, so I had a hard time finishing it. I think it has set the standards!

Jenners
Jenners

I read this book last year and just fell in love. It was an amazing story that was unlike anything else I'd ever read. I bet it is fantastic on audio. And I actually remember a line in there about the narrator being omnisicent or something. It stuck with me as it was kind of funny how it was phrased. Enjoy!! It is a fantastic book!

JoAnn
JoAnn

I have a copy of the book, but have heard before that audio is the way to go. Even though I generally find music in audiobooks annoying, you've convinced me to listen. Hope the rest of the book is just as good for you!

Amused
Amused

I think I read this book right after I got out of college and it was so different from anything I had ever read at the time. It was good but I remember wanting to talk about it with everyone. Great discussion idea!

Jenny
Jenny

Sheesh! I've never even heard of this one. I really need to expand my reading.

Care
Care

I was impressed by so many things in this book (and can remember! which is in itself a tribute to it's staying power). I gave it 5 slices of awesomeness.

Trisha
Trisha

I am so glad you are enjoying the book as much as I did! I feel in love with the story, the characters, and the writing when I read it. One of my best random finds!

The Literary Omnivore
The Literary Omnivore

I didn't care for the music—but, to be fair, I don't care for most music in audiobooks. But Tabori's performance as Cal was just mesmerizing—it was like having Cal right next to me, telling me his amazing story.

I think the implication, in Cal's wide knowledge, is that he's heavily researched his family as part of his quest to make sense of his life.

Eugenides is really a remarkable writer. I'm very much looking forward to picking up The Marriage Plot.

zibilee
zibilee

I read this one such a long time ago that I forgot most of what it was about. I definitely need to reread. Sandy and Jenners read this one together, and posted the best joint review of it that I have ever come across, so if you can find it, you should check it out! So glad to hear that you loved it!

Christina
Christina

The presentation of Detroit is what I loved best about this novel. When I think of Detroit, I think of an old, rundown, decrepit city, but that's not the city that Eugenides presents.

Erin
Erin

I'm with you -- I wasn't sure I'd enjoy Middlesex based on its subjects. It was the sheer love for the book I kept seeing in the blogging community that made me think maybe I should pick it up, and I'm so glad I did! You're right, the organization is perfectly balanced and masterfully done. Eugenides had so many plates in the air with Middlesex, but he managed to keep them all spinning while at the same time making the whole thing feel effortless.

Haha, again, I blame the blogging community...I wouldn't have realized Eugenides had a new book if not for them! If Middlesex is any indication, I'd say his books are worth waiting a decade for :-)

Erin
Erin

You're so right, Ryan. Going in I worried about being uncomfortable with some of the subject matter, but Eugenides treated those subjects so well they became natural. Instead of being repulsed or alienated, I was drawn to the family. Not many authors could pull that off with such skill.

Erin
Erin

I'll definitely read The Virgin Suicides at some point, just because I have a feeling Eugenides is one of those authors who could make the phone book fascinating. I'm glad to hear you liked it! I'm waiting for The Marriage Plot to come in at the library. I'm sold :-)

Erin
Erin

It seems to lend itself to rambly reviews, doesn't it? There's just so much to talk about, and yet I find myself gushing all over the place. I'm so so excited to read The Marriage Plot! I have a request in at the library. Of course, so does everyone else in my city, apparently, but I'll get it eventually :-)

Erin
Erin

I agree with you on the music. It's very well chosen and wouldn't bother me, I think, if I could figure out why it happens when it does!! I really want it at the end of each chapter, not seemingly mid-paragraph. I'm so glad you (and everyone else, it seems) are enjoying this one -- I really am!

Erin
Erin

That's about where I was when I wrote this post. I'm glad it's working for you. I kept feeling the urge to learn more about the history, too!! I love when a novel can do that. I can definitely see why Middlesex is on the 1001 list. What a great contemporary novel.

Erin
Erin

Yes, I'm sure that will happen to me, too! I feel like I got to know a person instead of read a book. Very cool.

Erin
Erin

I'm hoping The Marriage Plot will be my next Eugenides, and soon! I'm so happy you're enjoying it so much. I can't believe I waited this long to try him, either. It's always a disappointment when those once-a-decade authors fall short on one of their rare books, but it sounds like Eugenides isn't one of those authors who does. I will be curious to see how you like Middlesex!

Erin
Erin

I'm not sure I'll be able to read another book like this without comparing!

Erin
Erin

Zibilee told me to check out your review, so I plan to! It's so good on audio. If you ever want to revisit Middlesex, go audio. I think there is something about the omniscient narrator. I was impressed by how well Eugenides pulled off a first-person omniscient narrator (among a lot of other things)!

Erin
Erin

The music becomes a tiny blip of an annoyance when compared to the awesomeness that is Middlesex on audio. It is so good! I hope you give it a try.

Erin
Erin

It's so different! There's so much I want to talk about, too, I don't even know where to start. It seems like everyone has something to say about it.

Erin
Erin

I hardly had before I started reading book blogs. That's one of the things I love about this blogging thing!!

Erin
Erin

Yeah, that's how I know a book was really good -- I actually remember it! I'm not done yet, but I'm totally feeling the five whole slices.

Erin
Erin

I am falling in love with all of those things! I can't believe I waited so long to read this one.

Erin
Erin

I'm really anti-music in audiobooks (though I prefer it to someone saying, "This book is continued on disc whatever"), but I thought if the music in Middlesex had been placed at more logical points, I actually wouldn't have minded it. I definitely understand that Cal did a lot of research. It's more when he's detailing Desdemona's private thoughts decades before he was born or Milton's feelings during the bridge scene, things no one else could possibly know, that I expected to be a bit bothered. I'm looking forward to The Marriage Plot, too!

Erin
Erin

Thanks for the suggestion -- I'll definitely check out that joint review!

Erin
Erin

Exactly. It's amazing how effectively Eugenides evokes Detroit's former glory.