Full House Reading Challenge – Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Genre: LGBT, Family, History, Bildungsroman

Narrative Style: First person, non-chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2003

Format: Kindle

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre Over 500 pages.

This has been on my list for a long time so when it came up for £0.99 on my Kindle, I jumped at it. I’m not really sure what I expected from it (I’d read The Virgin Suicides and had been suitably weirded out by the tone and subject matter) but the story of Calliope / Cal wasn’t it. That isn’t a criticism. I couldn’t have possibly imagined anything as wildly exciting and interesting as the novel actually is.

The story actually starts long before Cal’s birth, on a completely different continent. Admittedly, I know very little about recent Greek history but the details supplied by Eugenides seemed to make sense. And as ever, with really evocative writing, it made me want to find out more. The boat trip to America and the treatment by the American authorities were also emotionally described and I really felt for Lefty and Desdemona (Cal’s grandparents).

Although this novel is described as being about Cal’s transformation from Calliope to Cal, it is a long time before we actually get to this part of the story. Hints are dropped and events alluded to but the main story moves through Cal’s grandparents to parents and then to the present day in order to explain the presence of the genetic mutation that causes all of Cal’s biological problems. There was no sense of impatience on my part though. No detail felt superfluous. The beginning of the novel in particular is a story beautifully told.

Later, it becomes more sensational and a little like a bad TV movie at times. Cal’s hermaphroditism is eventually discovered and he is taken to a doctor who is excited by the possibility of such an exciting case study. Cal is displayed and photographed in a way that seems just as seedy as later on when Cal has run away and ends up in a freak show with other transsexuals at various stages of transition. There is a certain element of magical realism in this part of the novel as Cal tries to come to terms with a new identity. It reminded me of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus when Fevvers lives with other freaks such as Sleeping Beauty.

What was pleasing was that Eugenides doesn’t make it straightforward for Cal who feels there is nowhere that he fit. Not male fully or female, not able to fit in with the intersex community, Cal was a little lost. In the present of the novel, Cal is working through a possible romance. Having revealed the entirety of his family history, he was ready at the end, to reveal his body to his lover. It felt like the right place to leave the story with the future possibilities wide open.




Eclectic Reading Challenge – The Virgin Suicides – Book that was made into a film.

Read as part of the Eclectic Reading Challenge.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I had an idea of what it was about and I was certainly curious. I haven’t seen the film although I would now like to see how it was done. I expected to find a narrative that was punctuated by the girls’photo-2 suicides, at regular intervals, keeping the reader involved. However, this book is much cleverer than that.

The narrative voice is one of the most interesting I have come across. It is ostensibly first person although ‘I’ is never used. It is written from the perspective of a ‘we’, the group of adolescent boys who are so fascinated by the Lisbon girls. This gives the voice a strange anonymity. Although lots of boys are named, give opinions and interact with the Lisbon girls, the narrator is not named. The voice is collective. This gives the story an universal feel. As if the boys represent all boys who are understandably fascinated by the teenage girls in their social circle. While the suicides are extreme, the lack of understanding between the boys and the Lisbon girls comes to represent the difficulties of communication between the sexes at this awkward time of life.

The first suicide occurs early in the novel and to my mind is the most devastating. The suspense that follows is even greater than if there had been a suicide every few chapters. I will not give away the ending but I could not have predicted how it would go. All the narrative is directed towards understanding the suicides of the Lisbon girls. However, the reader does not yet have the details of the rest of the suicides and so they are trying to understand something ephemeral, not quite real.

To my mind, the novel is about the painful transition from adolescence into adulthood. In this way, the deaths of the girls represent the death of childhood. Many of the boys who are visited twenty years on are past their prime, having had their best moments early in life. The girls have avoided the disappointment of life by taking control early on and killing themselves. They do not have to see the inevitable decay that begins to destroy the archive of their stuff that the boys keep. They escape the ageing process and instead remain forever beautiful and mysterious.

The reader is placed in the voyeuristic position of the boys who watch and note and obsess. The Lisbon girls are the unreadable difficult novel that they cannot understand. The girls are unknowable and the ordinariness of their deaths is baffling. Even with all the clues at their fingertips, understanding is not possible. This is perhaps the real tragedy. Not simply the girls suicides but the fact that whatever message they intended to send was lost in translation.