Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
An Audio Book Review
Listen to an Excerpt here
“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness,” “joy,” or “regret.” Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever. ”
Nature versus nurture, questions of gender, and the ideal of “normal” has always been an interest of mine, one that has grown as I have grown, life changes and occurrence ever adding to my questioning whether “normal” even exists, what makes us unique, and what influences the person we become. Gender has always been an interest, the power and the influence, the detriment, the ideologies and expectations. Beyond that, though, the myth of “normal” and the idea that we are trapped by genetics is something that I have bucked against, for myself, and for my children, especially my son who exists on the autism/aspergers spectrum and who is constantly judged by an invisible spectrum of normal that we have to constantly choose to fight against, or live within.
“I was beginning to understand something about normality. Normality wasn’t normal. It couldn’t be. If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone. They could sit back and let normality manifest itself. But people-and especially doctors- had doubts about normality. They weren’t sure normality was up the job. And so they felt inclined to give it a boost.”
Callie/Cal Stephanides is our brilliant host and narrator, who leads the reader through an epic journey of love, loss, change, circumstance, choice, fate and gender. Born with a mutation of the fifth chromosome which makes her appear at a birth to be a girl, although she is, in fact, biologically and hormonally a boy, Callie/Cal shares her experiences from the perspective of 41 years of living through what fate and free will have brought. We meet a cast of characters that span generations of love, loss and life told with such compassion, wit and vulnerability that very quickly I found myself attached to the Stepanides family. I looked forward to each subsequent chapter in their lives, dreading the time that I knew would eventually come when the book would be over, knowing full well that this family would carry on living within me for a long time after.
This is one of my first experiences with a multi-generational spanning novel and I have to say it was a fantastic journey. I found myself so deeply engrossed with the first story, the tale of Desdemona and Lefty, their unorthodox relationship and on-ship “courtship” and marriage, the tragic fires of Smyrna, and their relocation to Prohibition-era Detroit. I loved these characters so much, and had equal parts frustration and compassion for both Desdemona and Lefty, that I was unsure how I would feel when the story shifted focus to their son Milton, his wife Tessie, and their children. They were so well-written and vivid and wonderful that I fell for them just as much, in some ways even more so.
It was Callie/Cal, though, that had my heart, from the very first line, to the very last. The struggles, the triumphs, the acts of defiance, of passion, of desperation and of survival was life affirming, and inspiring. What I found most amazing about the story of Callie/Cal was how the struggles were so relatable, so universal, and collectively human. The story, for me, transcended a struggle with gender identity, and became about human identity, and had me remembering my own search of self in my adolescence, my young adulthood, and even now, in my forties. The need to connect, the sometimes confusion of attraction and intimacy, and the struggle to be an authentic “you” is not something specific, nor unique, to either gender, but to all of us.
“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”
From an Audio Book perspective, this book was exceptional. Kristoffer Tabori was by far one of my top favorite audio book narrators/voice actors I have ever experienced. He was the characters, each and every one of them. Not once – at all – was there a disconnect, or a feeling of “oh he is just doing a voice” – no, he was all of them, and his unique voice by character aged uniquely with each, as well. The use of music that was interspersed throughout the novel was effective and evocative. The music helped to shift the story, the time, the location, and the mood of it all, a nice touch, one I had not experienced before this book.
I have not stopped thinking about this book since I finished it about a week past. The characters, the story, and the feelings it surfaced in me, are buzzing and burning in me still. A sure sign of a fantastic read, isn’t it? The kind you never really want to say goodbye to, the kind you never truly want to end.
“But in the end it wasn’t up to me. The bigs things never are. Birth, I mean, and death. And love. And what love bequeaths to us before we’re born.”
Begin the Beguine :: Cole Porter & Ella Fitzgerald