Thursday, October 1, 2009

Reading Rainbow: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

There is a problem intrinsic with reading a highly acclaimed book such as Middlesex. Unlike reading a book that is simply recommended to you by a friend, a book that has won, say, the Pulitzer carries a burden of expectations quite a bit greater.

While a friend's suggestion certainly does not come without a standard of enjoyment that you expect to derive from a book, an Award-winner needs to prove its worth at every turn. It needs to justify its inclusion amongst the ranks of classics like Gravity's Rainbow (I know, it didn't win the Pulitzer, but no other book did that year because the Pulitzer Board would not award the Fiction Jury's unanimous recommendation), To Kill a Mockingbird, or American Pastoral.

Having jumped into Middlesex with lofty expectations as to what was ahead, I cannot say they were met.

I'm not saying the book was without merits. It is an loving and endearing trip into the lives of an immigrant Greek family. I have yet to read anything that surpasses the quality of exploration into gender roles and identities as interestingly as this book did. The narrator is almost entirely engaging.

But the book is not without its shortcomings.

The exposition of the family history, while mostly integral to the book, drags on entirely too long. Calliope Stephanides, the novel's narrator, is not born until somewhere around the 200 page mark. Up until that point, the pacing is a little turgid.

Furthermore, the leap required to buy into Cal's familial omniscience is one that is a bit hard to swallow. The construct may be necessary to best tell the story, but that does not mean it is not without its flaws.

In talking with others who have read the book, it was interesting to note that most of its heaviest detractors were female readers, who typified the book as pretentious. I wonder how much of this has to do with a man trying to write about growing up a girl (and presumably getting it wrong, at least tonally). While I didn't feel the novel crossed the line into pretension, I didn't feel especially irritated during the journey. I can, however, say that my quest to find justification in the award having been given ended in disappointment. While the book was certainly good, I don't know that it ever crossed into the realm of contemporary classic.

But don't take my word for it...

1 comment:

Weibel said...

I liked the part about grandpa running across the frozen lake during prohibition days to get booze...good descriptions and imagery in the book. Plus it made me think about Coney Island, the whole greek family opening a hotdog resturant. It was also required reading for Michelle's genetics program.

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