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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Middlesex

by
Jeffrey Eugenides


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Middlesex



Title: Middlesex
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 529 pages
Availability: Middlesex - US
Middlesex - UK
Middlesex - Canada
Middlesex - India
Middlesex - France
Middlesex - Deutschland
Middlesex - Italia
Middlesex - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : broad canvas, often very entertaining, but not entirely satisfactory as a whole

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 9/2002 Stewart O'Nan
Daily Telegraph A 5/10/2002 Kathryn Hughes
The Economist D 5/10/2002 .
L'Express . 11/9/2003 André Clavel
FAZ . 9/5/2003 Hubert Spiegel
The Guardian A 5/10/2002 Mark Lawson
The Independent . 19/10/2002 Julie Wheelwright
London Rev. of Books . 3/10/2002 Daniel Soar
The LA Times A+ 1/9/2002 Jeff Turrentine
The Nation . 14/10/2002 Keith Gessen
The New Criterion A 11/2002 Max Watman
The New Republic B+ 7/10/2002 James Wood
New York . 9/9/2002 John Homans
The NY Observer A- 9/9/2002 Adam Begley
The NY Rev. of Books . 7/11/2002 Daniel Mendelsohn
The NY Times A 3/9/2002 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 15/9/2002 Laura Miller
Newsweek B- 23/9/2002 David Gates
Salon A 5/9/2002 Andrew O'Hehir
San Francisco Chronicle A+ 22/9/2002 David Kipen
The Spectator . 5/10/2002 Sebastian Smee
Sunday Telegraph A- 13/10/2002 Caroline Moore
Sunday Times . 28/9/2003 Sam Gilpin
Sydney Morning Herald . 12/10/2002 James Ley
Time B- 23/9/2002 Richard Lacayo
The Times . 25/9/2002 Rachel Holmes
TLS . 4/10/2002 Paul Quinn
The Washington Post . 15/9/2002 Lisa Zeidner
Die Welt . 10/5/2003 Wieland Freund
Die Zeit . (21/2003) Ulrich Greiner


  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though most quite enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "Middlesex is consistently whimsical in its scene-setting and use of language, but despite its vaudeville exchanges and niftily isolated punch lines, it's rarely out-and-out funny. The narration is baldly self-conscious in its cleverness. (...) (I)t's off proportionally, both section-to-section and overall, its two halves at odds, each interesting at times but neither truly satisfying, despite Eugenides's prodigious talent. Like Cal, it's damned by its own abundance, not quite sure what it wants to be." - Stewart O'Nan, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "This might have resulted in a clumsy pastiche or a confused mess. But Eugenides combines a rigorous understanding of his sources (which include everything from Sophocles to Jeanette Winterson) with a wry and sprightly voice that is entirely original. The result is a masterful dissection and reassembling of the American Dream into a shape you will not quite have seen anywhere before." - Kathryn Hughes, Daily Telegraph

  • "Like a boy trying on his father's suit, Middlesex is a small-fry in a big jacket. (...) Indeed, the prose in Middlesex is oppressively perky, with a plague of exclamation marks. (...) (T)he historical material feels stale and second-hand." - The Economist

  • "Damit der Roman Łber der Fülle seiner Gegenstände nicht aus allen Nähten platzt und der Leser sich nicht schon nach zweihundert Seiten fühlt, wie ein Reiter, der aus dem Sattel gehoben wurde und nun von einem durchgegangenen Gaul mitgeschleift wird, hat der Autor gewisse Vorsichtsmaßnahmen ergriffen. Zu ihrer Vorbereitung waren beinahe acht Jahre nötig, so lange hat Eugenides nach eigenem Bekunden an Middlesex gearbeitet. Die Mühe hat sich gelohnt." - Hubert Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Finding new ways of telling the story, though, is clearly central to Eugenides' project as a novelist. (...) Eugenides continues to be the Joyce of the personal pronoun. The narrative tone -- best characterised as a sardonic empathy -- has possible progenitors in Muriel Spark and John Irving, but bears the individual imprint of Greek America." - Mark Lawson, The Guardian

  • "Eugenides is good on period detail, providing brooding, bold sketches of the family barricaded in their home during the Detroit race riots of 1967, the decline of Nixon, the reverberations of the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus. (...) Middlesex reminds us that those who fit awkwardly outside science's categories of sex, desire and gender have much to teach." - Julie Wheelwright, The Independent

  • "Middlesex, in its magnificent circumambulation and in its suggestive gender-based possibilities, seems to promise strangeness, but it doesn't make good on its Olympian opening. All the book's magic -- if magic is what we hoped for -- is present in the seed of its idea. Anything wilder is prohibited by Cal's impeccable conservatism" - Daniel Soar, London Review of Books

  • "Eugenides has had nearly a decade to relax, and the happy result is a novel that's as warm, expansive and generous as its predecessor wasn't. (...) Among many things, Middlesex is the author's love letter to a city that could probably use a few more. (...) Middlesex isn't just a respectable sophomore effort; it's a towering achievement, and it can now be stated unequivocally that Eugenides' initial triumph wasn't a one-off or a fluke. He has emerged as the great American writer that many of us suspected him of being." - Jeff Turrentine, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(T)he novel is no country for reasonable men, and Middlesex often ends up reading like a compromise between divergent viewpoints, a move toward a sort of consensus novel, which, like the consensus historiography of the 1950s, would mute the fragmentation and bitterness of American society. (...) With its heart so clearly in the right place, its taste and intelligence so handsome, Middlesex is a book that's almost impossible to dislike even as you're bored by it; but if sexless, bloodless, realist Cal is the alternative it proposes, I'm with the phallocrats." - Keith Gessen, The Nation

  • "On my first read, I felt Middlesex sometimes dull. I have come to realize that, considering its topic, dullness is a kind of genius. Think of the prurient possibilities here, the license to think of nothing but sex. A little boredom is welcome." - Max Watman, New Criterion

  • "Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides's big, messy, intermittently amusing new novel, seems to make a similar jangling sound as it comes down the pike, top-heavy as it is with every reference that could possibly be relevant to the Greek experience in America. (...) Middlesex is a melting pot in which anything and everything -- stylistically, historically, genitally -- can be put to some use. But it's like a game of cards where everything's wild. The book is eventful, unpredictable, eager to entertain, but missing the tension a more disciplined approach would have provided." - John Homans, New York

  • "Horrific events occur, cruel truths are discovered, passions build and crash, but Mr. Eugenides keeps the tone light -- almost, at times, breezy. Middlesex sweeps the reader along with easy grace and charm, tactfully concealing intelligence, sophistication and the ache of earned wisdom beneath bushels of inventive storytelling." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer

  • "And yet Einheit is what Middlesex itself ultimately lacks. (...) The failure of the author to provide an authentic voice and personality for his creature presages larger intellectual failings." - Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Review of Books

  • "Part Tristram Shandy, part Ishmael, part Holden Caulfield, Cal (...) is a wonderfully engaging narrator (.....) But it's his emotional wisdom, his nuanced insight into his characters' inner lives, that lends this book its cumulative power. He has not only followed up on a precocious debut with a broader and more ambitious book, but in doing so, he has also delivered a deeply affecting portrait of one family's tumultuous engagement with the American 20th century." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Eugenides pitches a big tent, but one of the delights of Middlesex is how soundly it's constructed, with motifs and characters weaving through the novel's various episodes, pulling it tight. (...) (T)he novel's patron saint is Walt Whitman, and it has some of the shagginess of that poet's verse to go along with the exuberance. But mostly it is a colossal act of curiosity, of imagination and of love." - Laura Miller, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Certainly, although his novel is blemished by elements of didacticism and prolixity, and he is not without the postmodern urge to turn clouds of suggestion into storms of fact, Eugenides has a simple confidence in his Greek material that disarms his vices." - James Wood, The New Republic

  • "(I)ngenious, entertaining and -- I hate to say it -- ultimately not-so-moving (.....) Middlesex does as well as any book I know at melding self-conscious artifice and real-world history (.....) Cal eludes us. He/she is more a construct than a character, apparently existing to make a point about gender (.....) Will he/she get the girl/boy ? If you end up giving a Smyrna fig, you're a better man/woman than I am." - David Gates, Newsweek

  • "Middlesex begins as a generous, tragicomic family chronicle of immigration and assimilation, becomes along the way a social novel about Detroit, perhaps the most symbolic of American cities, and incorporates a heartbreaking tale of growing up awkward and lonely in '70s suburbia. It's a big, affectionate and often hilarious book" - Andrew O'Hehir, Salon

  • "Jeffrey Eugenides' unprecedented, astounding new novel, Middlesex. (...) And what language, what prose! Lots of novelists write beautifully about diurnal, mundane things, and Eugenides can do that with the best of them. But his rarer power resides in the ability to craft scenes whose freshness of incident matches their freshness of description. (...) Any book that can make a reader actively want to visit Detroit must have one honey of a tiger in its tank." - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(A)t over 500 pages, itís too long. There are other problems, too. Although the writing is good, it is not uniformly so. Eugenidesí style flits between the heartfelt (...), and the trashily journalistic (...), often several times within the same paragraph. But what is most grating is the narratorís apparent need to wreck otherwise beautiful passages with irritating little infusions of self-consciousness. (...) (A) charming, witty, but ultimately disappointing example of the dangers of putting it all in, relating everything, smothering whole lives in blizzards of words." - Sebastian Smee, The Spectator

  • "Jeffrey Eugenides's second novel is richly readable, but does not lie easy upon the imaginative digestion. (...) With so much to enjoy and admire, it seems churlish to carp. Yet the novel reminded me of a magnificently over-ripe Stilton. (...) What I did not like was the rind. Eugenides has some difficulty in holding together this sprawling, three-generational narrative" - Caroline Moore, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The originality of Eugenidesís novel lies in the brilliance with which he enters into his protagonistís mind and body, creating a sympathetic and utterly credible hero-cum-heroine." - Sam Gilpin, Sunday Times

  • "Around the central fact of Cal's genetics, Eugenides builds a narrative flexible enough to take in broader questions of race and sex (or rather ethnicity and gender), while maintaining its focus on what is essentially an affectionate and immensely appealing family portrait." - James Ley, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Some of this footloose book is charming. Most of it is middling." - Richard Lacayo, Time

  • "Not since Michel Foucaultís Herculine Barbin two decades ago has there been such a sustained first person narration about the coming of age of a hermaphrodite as offered by Jeffrey Eugenidesí second novel, Middlesex." - Rachel Holmes, The Times

  • "Eugenides is a child of the era of deconstruction: difference is valued above identity. (...) That Eugenides manages to move us without sinking into sentiment shows how successfully he has avoided the tentacles of irony which grip so many writers of his generation." - Paul Quinn, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The background material is capably handled and engaging enough, especially if you have special interest in either the history of Detroit or Greek immigrant culture. Eugenides can't always reliably distinguish a telling detail from a tedious one. (...) If Middlesex seems top-heavy on the gnarled family tree and skimpy on the fascinating blow-by-blow of Cal's burgeoning sexuality, be assured that Eugenides intends the uneasy balance." - Lisa Zeidner, The Washington Post

  • "Literatur aus dem "melting pot": Jeffrey Eugenides' Roman Middlesex scheint das schlussendliche Wunderwerk der Anverwandlung im Prozess der Rückbesinnung auf die Tradition." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt

  • "Der Roman könnte ebenso gut doppelt wie halb so dick sein, es würde ihm weder schaden noch nützen. (...) Er ist eben, wie man auf Deutsch sagt, ein Zwitter. Und zwitterhaft ist auch dieser Roman. Man kann viel aus ihm lernen, man langweilt sich selten. Er braust auf breiten Reifen und mit erstaunlicher Kraft durch ein pittoreskes Gelšnde. Letztlich ist es eine Sache des Geschmacks" - Ulrich Greiner, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of Middlesex, Calliope ("Cal") Helen Stephanides, is upfront with readers about what to expect, the novel beginning straight-off with the disclosure: "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl (...) and then again, as a teenage boy". Cal is a hermaphrodite -- quite literally a middle-sex. (The title unfortunately also refers to another part of the novel -- one of many un-subtle strokes that feel far too forced.) Cal begins the novel when he is age forty-one (feeling "another birth coming on"), and tells his (and her) story -- occasionally speaking from the present (where he lives in Germany, in the employ of the American foreign service), but most of the time inhabiting the long-lost past.
       Cal tells how he became who he is. The contemporary scenes reveal him still trying to find himself, a bit -- and in particular trying to find love. These scenes are usually just small bursts -- chapter-beginnings, before the reminiscences take over --, but they work quite well: reader's are genuinely interested in this odd life and how he came to where he is, as well as what he is still going through.
       So readers are curious about this narrator and his unusual ... being. Unfortunately, Cal largely does tell his tale chronologically. That wouldn't be such a problem except that he begins a tad earlier than necessary: the book is 529 pages long, and Cal makes his official entrance (with his first birth, in the form of an infant-girl (or something resembling one)) on page 215. He pops up a few times before, but the first two hundred pages are largely devoted to his family: his Greek grandparents fleeing their homeland to Detroit, and then his parents.
       It's not that this family-history is uninteresting. The Greek scenes, including the burning of Smyrna, and then his grandparents odd (and -- genetically speaking -- ill-advised) courtship and marriage, and their adapting to America is all quite entertaining. Eugenides is a good storyteller, and he offers some fine episodes. Detroit (Eugenides' hometown), in particular, and the changes it undergoes between the grandparents' arrival and the early 1970s is very well done, for example.
       But little of all this seems to bear much on the main story -- on Cal, who keeps popping up only to disappear again in the background (and in the future). Middlesex is a family saga, but Eugenides does a poor job of presenting family: these are individuals whose paths sometimes cross, and while there are times when the relationships (the love, the hate, the needs) are clear and the mutual interactions made manifest most of the time they remain individuals, islands all. Most of the best bits of the novel take place in isolation from family, whether its grandma working for the Nation of Islam or Cal's adventures. Indeed, many members of the family dip completely out of sight for long periods of time, even when Cal comes on the scene -- often functioning as little more than bit background players.
       Cal is the ultimate example of 'we are what our parents (and grand-parents, etc.) make us', and presumably this is in part what Eugenides is trying to show with his sprawling saga, but it does not fully convince -- in part also because, though we hear from Cal at age forty-one, and follow him through childhood and early adolescence, there is precious little about the twenty-five years in between, formative years (for most people) that are almost totally glossed over.
       There is also the problem of the narrative voice. The forty-one year old Cal tells the story in the first person, yet easily falls back into the voice of an omniscient narrator, presenting details from long before his birth -- and other people's thoughts, and and and ..... He makes some excuses for this, but his unconvincing certainty undermines his tale.
       Things improve some when Eugenides lets the young Cal take centre stage, but the novel remains terribly episodic. Some of these episodes, with Cal feeling sexual confusion from a young age, are very good, but they are still not enough and leave many questions unanswered.
       Very striking throughout the novel is how characters are left behind, brutally abruptly, hardly deserving of a second thought (except as Cal dredges them up again in writing his tale). Loves, acquaintances: as soon as they are no longer physically present they are literally written off. Those that continue to live nearby -- relatives and the like -- are also often lost from view, and when they pop up again it often comes almost as a surprise that they are still around.
       Some of Cal's childhood experiences are well-done -- including a teen-relationship with the Object (as in: That Obscure Object of Desire) -- , and the book becomes quite gripping as the inevitable discovery (she is more he) comes. The family turns to a specialist, in New York, in an effort to determine what exactly Cal is (and what should be done to her or him). From there Eugenides takes one of several unfortunate turns, as Cal runs away from what the doctor wishes to do to her (and from her family) and decides to become what s/he is meant to become all herself. Again, there are some decent scenes but too much is unlikely and too much is rushed.
       There are several plot-twists and catastrophes in the novel that are overdone: an unnecessary stage-death, a supposed kidnapping (with catastrophic results), some Detroit riot scenes (which a very young Cal intrudes upon). It's unclear why Eugenides didn't trust his story for all the rather sensational and juicy bits it naturally offers.
       Middlesex feels like two books squeezed, uncomfortably, into one. Or even more. There are several hints that Eugenides was aiming for a Middlemarch-type canvas of a locale (Detroit) -- there's the title, for one, and George Eliot is among the few authors mentioned more than once. But Middlemarch didn't aim for generational sweep as well, covering a much shorter time frame. And Eugenides wants his novel also to be both family saga and the story of an individual, and he doesn't manage to tie the two together particularly well.
       It's frustrating, because the book reads easily and, often, very well -- the episodes are often gripping, the characters -- when he dwells on them -- involving. The best parts are the most intimate: the contemporary scenes, and the ones focussed entirely on young Cal (before s/he runs away -- once he's on his own the scenes aren't nearly as successful).
       Eugenides took a long time to write this novel (it appears nine years after last work), and it seems he might have taken too much time to dwell and elaborate on it. Occasionally there is something to be said for rushing a book. Eugenides writes well enough, and he is a story-teller too -- apparently brimming with stories. But Middlesex has the feel of a too pieced-together group of episodes and anecdotes, with little flow. (Eugenides' annoying habit of warning what is to come (Father Mike's wife's nagging "hadn't led him to his desperate act ..." yet, mentioned 150 pages before the act itself, is only one of many examples) doesn't help matters in the least.)
       This could have been a fine sweeping Detroit-centred saga of 20th century Greek-immigrant life in which Cal's place is incidental, or it could have been a solid novel about Cal pure and simple (in which everything else can find a place, but much subordinated). Instead, the novel -- a pleasure to read, for the most part -- closes leaving the reader dissatisfied. It's neither fish nor fowl, neither he nor she, just an uncomfortably imbalanced Middlesex.

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Links:

Middlesex: Reviews: Jeffrey Eugenides: Other books Jeffrey Eugenides under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       American author Jeffrey Eugenides was born in 1960. He currently lives in Berlin.

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© 2002-2012 the complete review

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