Thursday, October 24, 2013

Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

So, how many books are there with a hemaphrodite/transsexual main character, and have received critical acclaim? Very few, am I right? I certainly can't come up with that many from the top of my head. 

By all means, I should love the shit out of this book.

Which is why I'm really pissed off at Mr. Eugenides for going and putting his foot in his mouth because it's stuff like his NPR review that irrevocably skewers my perception of an author's work. And I realize he has no reason to care for my opinion, but I suppose I should somehow justify not giving this book a full five stars. 

Sad as it is, though, when you take away the main zinger - that the main character is a hermaphrodite - this book doesn't really bring anything to the table that other authors haven't already.

Middlesex is told by Cal (Calliope) Stephanides, who, thanks to her family intermarrying for generations, was born not entirely of either sex. The book basically follows her family through three generations, starting from her grandparents fleeing Turkey in 1922, to finish with Callie and his coming to accept his real gender identity.

This isn't the kind of story that is impossible to write. Isabel Allende, for example, has done it very well in her House of Spirits trilogy, as well as in "Eva Luna". However, I think Middlesex didn't quite work. I don't know why that is. Both Eugenides and Allende use a wide cast to tell a family story, but Eugenides' charactecters seem just this side of... set-up. Like their motivations only made sense for one situation, but not in the overall context of their character.

Cal likes to reference Greek tragedies whenever a deus-ex-machina device seems to be employed, and yet isn't that exactly what happens? No matter how ironic a character is, a convenient plot development is still a convenient plot development (also, as I might have mentioned in my Paper Towns review, pretentuous characters make me break out in hives). 

And, in the end, after all the dramatic reveals and tragic plot twists, after the badly-motivated villains and strange character explorations, the payoff doesn't match up. It seems like half the twists were thrown in not for conflict, but to make things more sad, and that's a cheap way to manipulate the audience.

Like I said, I would have liked the book. I was very much inclined to like it, and I've enjoyed quite a lot of derivative books in the past. Still, I don't see how Mr. Eugenides has the right to talk about how men's writing is superior to that of women when his own plots are borrowed from those already explored by ladies.

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