Book Recommendation: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

2014 has been a great reading year for me so far and you know what’s even better? Most of the books I’d read this year were awesome. I didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time with any of them (but then again, I’m not that fussy). I’m very happy with the fulfillment and enjoyment I’ve been getting off the written world recently and look forward to a lot more in the coming months.

Meet the book:

Even among all the wonders I’d savoured throughout these four-and-a-half months, Middlesex was a stand-out. It was one of the best books I’d read in my twenty years of life. Consider the fact that I found it in a whole pile of the exact same copies during one of those suffocating clearance book fairs, going at $6.90 and wait for it… selling at 3 for the price of 2. So it rounded out to just above $5. Best investment ever? I really think so.

If you haven’t heard of this wonderful slab of a book, here’s a short summary of it:

Cal was born on a winter’s day in Detroit, Michigan in January 1960 as a beautiful baby girl of Greek ancestry. Fourteen years later, in the summer of 1974, he was born again as a boy. There are really no spoilers at all in this book. Every single plot line that is of great significance is revealed in the very first paragraph. However, in order to make sense of them all, one has to get through the 500+ pages of text and they appear in fairly large chunks. Did I intimidate you there? Don’t be, because Jeffrey Eugenides had crafted beautifully detailed characterisations to help us out. Cal’s own story only takes up about half of the book, because he was obliged to explain every circumstance leading to his awakening in vivid, exaggerated detail so that we understand his family and the things they’d been through before he found out who exactly he was.

My thoughts:

The characters were brilliantly illustrated and very endearing and did I say funny? This book is hilarious. I brought it out to the bank to read while in the queue two weeks ago and couldn’t help but let a few chuckles escape in the packed room. Nevertheless, Cal has had a tumultuous life and there are moments when you’ll have to blink back tears if you’re out reading Middlesex in public. However, you’ll probably not outright sob as Jeffrey Eugenides had so kindly saved us from public embarrassment by sliding some funny even in those moments.

Backstories make up the most of this book as Cal tells us about his family’s history, beginning with his grandparents when they were barely out of their teens, across the pond in Greece. Their story was one I’d enjoyed tremendously. It was told scathingly humourous manner. Cal doesn’t allow their mistakes to be covered up by his words. As they migrated across a continent into America, we also get to see how hard they tried to integrate into the liberalised American society and how sometimes they didn’t want to. Cal’s parents were brought up to be as American as can be and I can’t help drawing parallels between America and Singapore, where I live. Both these countries were made up with a majority immigrant population whose descendants have established their own separate culture. As Cal’s father, Milton found his ability to converse in Greek faltering day-by-day, many of us here slowly lose our ability to speak in our ancestral tongue as Western culture sweeps over our small island. Sadly, apart from the first 3 Harry Potter books translated to Chinese, I don’t own anymore Chinese books. Oops.

Meet the baby.

Baby photo with all the junk behind for the world to see.

Middlesex is a multi-faceted novel that makes you think hard about your own lives, no matter where you’re situated. It’s about family, society, personality, adolescence, relationships and science. I love that last part. Eugenides had made science really interesting to read and his intelligence really shone through those scientific passages he’d so lovingly translated for the lay person. Dig out your Punnett Squares, people! You’re going to be re-educated in Mendelian genetics and then some. Draw Cal’s family tree if you have to. It was really fun, trust me. 😉

In case you were wondering, and as much as you would like to think otherwise, the real author of this book is phenotypically and psychologically XY. Yes, the story felt so real that I had to Google to find out for myself. So yeah, go borrow, buy or steal (don’t tell your mum) this bold, no holds barred novel. I guarantee you’ll want more. I would pay to read Cal’s entire life, but we all know that good things always come to an end.


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