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Oprah’s Book Club Picks Middlesex for its Summer Selection

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As I strolled into Starbucks with Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer Prize winning novel Middlesex in my grasp, the barista asked me, "What's that book like?" I mulled over his question, then brightly responded: "Best book I have ever read about a hermaphrodite."

Funny, my barista doesn't chat me up any more.

Baristas beware! Now, thanks to Oprah Winfrey, who has selected Middlesex as the latest selection for her book club, tens of thousands of new readers will be introduced to Eugenides' quirky tale. Yes, there is much more than ambiguous genitalia in this romp through several generations of Greek intermarriage and its consequences. But center stage is taken by Calliope Stephanides, born as a girl in 1960, but reinventing herself (himself?) as teenage boy in the mid-1970s. Around Calliope’s remarkable story, Eugenides weaves dozens of characters and sub-plots into a dazzling narrative.

As Eugenides demonstrated in his debut novel The Virgin Suicides, he is capable of bringing a light touch to even the darkest subjects. The story of Middlesex, when presented in stark outline, is a tragic one. In addition to Calliope’s gender confusion, the reader confronts ethnic cleansing, underworld crime, race riots, poverty, fatal accidents and various miscarriages of the medical profession. Yet this summary presents a misleading sense of the ambiance of the book, which moves ahead with a lilting, often humorous tone strikingly at odds with the tale presented.

Eugenides begins his novel in Anatolia where Calliope’s grandparents, Lefty and Desdemona, fall in love in the midst of Greco-Turkish violence that forces them to abandon their native land. During their voyage by ship to the United States, the couple get married, and try to forget the inconvenient fact that they are, in fact, brother and sister. The Stephanides settle in Detroit, where their son, Milton, marries a second cousin, setting the genetic stage for Calliope’s arrival. Here is her dilemma in a nutshell: the chromosomes say male — Calliope has both an X and a Y — but the physical apparatus looks (more or less) female.

This sharp contrast between the tone and topic of Middlesex has disturbed some readers. Daniel Mendelsohn, writing in The New York Review of Books, wanted more pathos from Eugenides, and attacked Middlesex for its “pervasive sense of superficiality.” Other critics took the opposite tack, praising the novel’s comic aspects, and hailing it as a modern-day Tristam Shandy. That a single book can inspire such radically different interpretations testifies to the complexity and multi-layered textures of Eugenides’ epic novel.

But readers who come to Middlesex because of the peculiarities of the story, will remember it for the quality of its writing. Eugenides is a brilliant stylist, full of clever asides, striking metaphors, and memorable turns of phrase. The prose starts strong, but gets even better as the novel progresses. About three hundred pages into the book, Eugenides launches into a trope on the hairiness of Southern European women — “Sing Muse of Greek ladies and their battle against unsightly hair! Sing of depilatory creams and tweezers! Of bleach and beeswax,” etc., etc. — that is as funny and inspired as anything I have read in a long time. And though he soon moves on to other topics, his writing stays at a remarkably high level for the next thirty or so pages. When he is at the top of his game like this, Eugenides demands respect as one of the finest writers of his generation.

Now Oprah’s club will have its chance at this rich work. The attention has already pushed Middlesex up to the sixth position on Amazon’s best seller list. God bless Oprah for continuing to promote quality fiction at a time when newspapers are slashing their book review pages and publishers are retrenching. The smart money says that, after a taste of Eugenides’ great writing, more than a few readers will turn off the television and start checking out the action on the library shelves.

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About Ted Gioia

  • http://www.danielmendelsohn.com Daniel Mendelsohn

    I fear that Ted Gioia has done both Jeffrey Eugenides and myself a great disservice by very seriously misrepresenting the content of my review of Mr. Eugenides’ book, “Middelsex,” which appeared in the New York Review of Books. Mr. Gioia’s casual and careless characterization of my reivew as one that “attacked Middlesex for its ‘pervasive sense of superficiality'” is very wide of the mark indeed. The entire first half of my long review is a very admiring encomium of the parts of “Middlesex” having to do with the immigrant past of the protagonist’s family; my criticism was direct only at that part of Eugenides’ novel that sought to examine the issue of hermaphroditism. This treatment, I felt, was superficial–but I certainly did not accuse the novel in its entirety of being superficial, which is what the raeders of Mr. Gioia’s (unedited? un-factchecked?) article would conclude.

    Daniel Mendelsohn
    New York City

  • http://www.tedgioia.com Ted Gioia

    Let me respond to Daniel Mendelsohn’s comments about my review.

    His remarks would seem to indicate that he gave Middlesex a favorable review, but since the entire review is available on-line readers can make up their own minds.

    For my part, I find it hard to reconcile Mendelsohn’s comments above with what he actually wrote about Middlesex at the time of its publication. In the New York Review of Books (1) he mentions the novel’s “larger intellectual failings”; (2) he insists “there’s nothing all that interesting or distinctive” about the main character”; (3) he refers to the “vacuum at the center of his book”; (4) he notes that “Eugenides has fallen back on such unthinking clichés”; and (5) in the closing sentence describes Middlesex as Eugenides’ “malformed novel.”

    There are many other negative comments in Mendelsohn’s review. I merely provide a small taste. Needless to say, the review should be read in its entirety.

    And the issues of superficiality? Was I wrong in claiming that Mendelsohn accused Eugendies of superficiality? Here is the entire sentence in question — let readers judge whether Mendelsohn accused this novel of superficiality. He writes: “The result is an odd but pervasive sense of superficiality; it’s a performance more than a novel.

    In the light of this, I find it peculiar that Mendelsohn accuses me of being unfair to Jeffrey Eugenides. He is the one mounting the attack of a book I have unambiguously praised in my review.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • http://octobrarian2.blogspot.com Jason Michel

    I just wanted to thank you for the final sentence of this article. I am an Academic Librarian at the beginning of my career and am concerned about the state of literacy in relation to literature, specifically contemporary American literature. I am also concerned about the future of libraries. So, it’s nice to hear book reviewers referring readers to library shelves rather than book store shelves. With respect to Middlesex, I also believe this is the type of work that will inspire casual readers to read more challenging and genuine works of fiction.

  • Daniel Mendelsohn

    I fear you once again have failed–deliberately, I must believe, this time around, rather than merely carelessly, as was the case last time–to give a sense of the whole of my review, which was (I have to repeat) very positive in some regards and quite negative in others: in other words, a mixed review. My previous comlaint about your earlier misrepresentation took issue with your partial and tendentious representation of another critic’s work; in citing only my quite negative evaluation of the novel’s handling of the hermaphroditism theme, you failed to give any sense of the quite positive character of my evaluation of the other parts. I did not, as you now write, want to indicate that I gave Middlesex a favorable review”: here you are merely setting up a straw man. I wanted merely to indicate, as your paraphrase did not, that it was a mixed review. Now, in your defensive response to my earlier posting, you simply replicate your earlier error: quoting (again) only from the negative parts of my review, and wholly and irresponsibly ignoring the many positive things I said. I cannot conceive why you would persist in misrepresenting my (or any) piece in this way–it’s something no responsible critic would do, and no responsible editor would permit (but of course, blogs aren’t edited). Fortunately, you have directed your readers to the piece itself, which any intelligent reader can see is a quite mixed review and hardly the wholesale pan you inexplicably and irresponsibly make it out to be.

  • http://www.tedgioia.com Ted Gioia

    Let me respond again to Mr. Mendelsohn’s comments. I don’t see how I could be any clearer, but let me try.

    In my review, I mention Mendelsohn in a single sentence. I state that he accused Middlesex of superficiality. He denies this. In my follow-up I quoted the entire sentence from his review — let me do it again. He wrote in the New York Review of Books: “”The result is an odd but pervasive sense of superficiality; it’s a performance more than a novel.” This seems absolutely clear-cut. But readers who find ambiguity here should read Mendelsohn’s entire review, which is available on-line.

    Mr.Mendelsohn insists, further, that he did not give Middlesex a negative review. But a close reading of his actual review does not back up this claim. Of course, it is possible that he would now like to spin his words differently, given the novel’s subsequent Pulitzer Prize and growing acceptance as a modern classic. But he wrote what he wrote. I can merely quote the review he published, not the one he might now wish to give this novel.

    Ted Gioia