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Time for book club! | Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Time for book club! | Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

As with all book clubs, a great part of the joy of our Imaginary Book Club is reading together and chatting about what we’ve read as a group. For more info on how our online book club work, and the many ways you can participate, hop over here or sign up to read with us.

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Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

“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 l974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license…records my first name simply as Cal.”

So begins the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City, and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal, one of the most audacious and wondrous narrators in contemporary fiction. Lyrical and thrilling, Middlesex is an exhilarating reinvention of the American epic.

Middlesex is the winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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17 Comments

  1. Imaginary Book Club

    Cal/Calliope swings like a pendulum between male and female. How much of Cal is female and how much of Calliope is male?

    Reply
    • Whitney

      I almost don’t even like this question. It makes an assumption that male and female are opposites and fundamentally opposed. Since male/female is pretty much based on stereotypes, it’s not really about how much is female or male, but which elements of male/female stereotypes Cal takes on at different points in their life.

      Reply
      • Anna

        I agree with you, Whitney. However, in re-reading the book for book club, this does seem like a question that Cal would ask himself often. It seems like he’s doing some sort of calculations — especially in the days in SF after he runs away.

        Reply
  2. Imaginary Book Club

    Eugenides stole from his own Greek family in creating Cal’s family. Did you find the family dynamics believable?

    Reply
    • Anna

      Um, so. much. incest… (Lefty/Desdemona) and incest-adjacent… (Milton/Tessie)? Father Mike’s extortion? A sibling named “Chapter 11”? Totally believable.

      P.S. Seriously, WHAT IS CHAPTER ELEVEN’S NAME? WHERE DOES IT COME FROM? Was it retrospectively given to him after he drives the business to bankruptcy? I could take or leave the Obscure Object, but I have so many questions about Chapter 11.

      Reply
  3. Imaginary Book Club

    Greek literature and myth are woven throughout Middlesex. What role does fate play in the story? Do people depend on it, or do they challenge it?

    Reply
    • Whitney

      The fatalism actually feels really odd to me. I don’t actually believe in fate at all, so it really messed with me. I hate the idea that we don’t control our own destiny.

      Reply
  4. Imaginary Book Club

    Both Cal and his grandparents are strangers in a new land. How does this out of place feeling differ between Cal’s shift in gender, and his grandparents’ immigration experience?

    Reply
    • Anna

      As a narrative device, I think it totally works, but re-reading it highlighted some other aspects of the family’s journey from racialized immigrants (think the doctor’s fascination with their Mediterranean diet) to white and, eventually, more “race-less.” I really was disappointed in the racism and fear held by Cal’s parents. I really didn’t notice it much the first time I read this book. I think I was less aware of institutionalized racial inequality but I was more eager to find out Cal’s story. Now, however, I was very uncomfortable reading about the family’s casual racism toward their neighbors and customers, the Detroit uprising, the family’s white flight and how their wealth (gained from the insurance money from the riot) allowed them to bypass the Point System, and pulling Cal out of public school in the wake of busing/integration and enrolling her/him in the prep school full of Fords.

      Reply
  5. Imaginary Book Club

    Cal’s past is laid out before you. What do you think his future looks like?

    Reply
  6. Imaginary Book Club

    What do you think of Cal’s current relationship with Julie? How do you think Eugenides wants us to believe it ends?

    Reply
    • Anna

      I think that was one of the least developed parts of the book, to be honest. Isn’t he like MUCH older her? The conclusion felt sort of rushed. I think he’s trying to give us a sort of “happily ever after” for Cal and Julie and for Cal and his family.

      Reply
  7. Imaginary Book Club

    What did you learn about intersex? Share any other resources you found while reading!

    Reply
    • Whitney

      Less so this time, but the first time I read Middlesex it really opened my eyes. I had known that intersex was a reality before I read the book, but the reality of what life and the pressures that would put on a child to understand their own identity.

      Reply
      • Anna

        Reading this book the first time (around it won the Pulitzer in 2002) was really eye-opening to me. This was LONG cited as one of my favorite books and there was a time when I recommended it to everyone. The “twist” that Cal was intersex, at the time, was a big narrative hook for me and was especially fascinating. I hadn’t really heard much of intersex prior to reading this book. Around this same time, I was getting into Freaks & Geeks — where there is an intersex character who was surgically assigned a female gender at birth. At the time, I was just coming into understanding the social construction of gender. Eugenides and Cal’s careful articulation of the studied mannerisms and differences of things I thought inherent to me astounded me.

        But re-reading it now, it was a little different. Now that the “twist” was spoiled for me, I focused more on the ancestors’ stories. I think, as a teenager, eager to discover what happens to Cal, I just breezed over. The thing that breaks my heart the most about Middlesex now (and about the intersex community) is how so many parents were pressured with limited information and heaps of fear to surgically assign their children at birth, just as the meeting between Cal’s parents and the Doctor went. I felt so relieved when Cal ran away.

        In undergrad, I also read an academic book on intersex gender issues that I really loved: Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality by Anne Fausto-Sterling. If you want to learn more, I’d highly recommend it. If you also like gender-bending romances, I read last year for the first time “Written on the Body” (1992) by Jeannette Winterson, where the narrator has no gender. It’s a beautiful and surreal, while highly detailed and realistic, story.

        Reply
  8. Austyn

    This is the first time I haven’t finished an IBC pick! I had a hard time getting into the story, and continually thought “what does this have to do with anything?” I’m going to keep powering through, and I’ll reply to these questions then!

    Reply
  9. Bev

    I, too, am experiencing a first time not finishing a book club book. I will finish it eventually, because that’s what I do. I read all of the novels assigned in my 1975 18th Century English Novel class in the early 1990’s. I don’t know if it was really the fault of the book that I didn’t finish or the combination of a weeklong visit from my daughter and the nightly addiction to binge watching The Good Wife.
    Full disclosure, I only am at 26% so that is really not enough to give a very good assessment.

    Reply

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