Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad

Book recommendation: Middlesex

4 Comments

I feel a bit silly recommending Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex to you, seeing as it was published a full decade ago, and most people I’ve talked to about it have read it already. Having recently finished this book, however, I feel the need to spread the word about how good it is, on the off-chance that you haven’t read it either and I might induce you to.

What kept me from reading Middlesex all these years was my understanding that it was an “intergenerational saga,” which is not typically what I go for in a novel. I enjoy books which allow me to get to know a few characters really well, as opposed to books in which I have to continually meet and adjust to new characters. I think this mirrors my real-life preference to spend time with a smaller group of people that I know well rather than a larger group that I’m acquainted with on a more casual basis.

It turns out, however, that despite being an intergenerational saga, Middlesex is exactly my kind of book. The book’s main concern is the formation of one individual’s identity (their gender identity, in particular) but in order to fully appreciate this character’s situation, you have to understand things that happened in the previous generations of that individual’s family. You could make this argument for any character in any book, I suppose, but I’d say that the family history is especially important here.

I’ve been in awe of Jeffrey Eugenides since I read his first novel, The Virgin Suicides, in which he pioneered a new kind of point-of-view, which was first-person plural. If you haven’t read the book, that means that it is narrated not as an “I”, but as a “we” (it’s a group of boys telling a story about a family of five girls with whom they were obsessed). In Middlesex, Eugenides again plays with point-of-view in a way that would make any writer jealous: though narrating in first-person, his main character has firsthand access to things that happened decades before they were born. Odd and seemingly wrong when you stop to think about it, but it’s so well-done that as you’re reading, you never doubt the source or question the authenticity for a moment. This is one sign that you’re in the hands of a truly skilled writer.

In addition to enjoying great writing, you will not have read many books that grapple with the sorts of questions that Middlesex does, though the questions are important and fundamental. Questions like how do we come to identify with one gender over the other? and what are the relative contributions of genes and environment to that process? Perhaps it’s the former psychology student in me that finds these issues very compelling, but I’d submit that we’d all do well to think about them a little bit.

If you haven’t read it, I think all I have to do in order to get you immediately hooked and committed to reading the novel’s 530 pages, as I was, is to give you its first sentence:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

Has your curiosity been piqued?

A final note: as suggested by the title and my description, the book does contain descriptions of genitalia and sexual encounters, but none of it ever struck me as gratuitous.

Have I convinced you to read this yet? If you’ve already read the book, what did you think of it?

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4 thoughts on “Book recommendation: Middlesex

  1. You convinced me! I’m reading three books right now (Moneyball, The Cat’s Table, The Elegant Universe) but I’m going to pick up a copy of Middlesex. It will go in the pile of 27 books on my bedside table that are waiting to be read:)

  2. you’ve got me interested!

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