Posted by: Sally Ingraham | December 23, 2010


middlesexby Jeffrey Eugenides
read by Kristoffer Tabori

I continue to find it amusing that I’ll readily pick up a book in audio format that I haven’t felt any compelling desire to read. ‘International bestsellers’, pulp, or just ridiculously long – something about getting to this type of book while simultaneously killing time during car rides works for me. In this case, I was willing to venture into an entire genre that I normally stay clear of.

The ‘Modern Family Epic’. In my normal life, when I pick a book up and read something like ‘Middlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family‘ I cringe and put it down. I’m not entirely sure why. Multi-generational stories can be hugely fascinating, flinging themselves across time and place as they do. I’m less concerned with this type of story when it deals with a distant time and place – after all I am cheerfully busting through The Cairo Trilogy at this very moment, which at least fits the ‘Family Epic’ description. I’m pretty interested in American history, so I shouldn’t mind the ‘American Epic’ either. Regardless, I have a strange resistance to this genre.

And regardless of that, I took all 17 CDs of Middlesex along with me over a month ago and proceeded to listen with varying degrees of interest to Calliope’s tale. Certainly the fact that the narrator of the story is a hermaphrodite adds a whole new level of intrigue to the classic tale of immigration, life during Prohibition-era Detroit, the Depression, WWII, the race riots of 1967, and suburban life in middle class America… I was entertained by a lot about the story, which was rich in guilty family secrets and of course that interesting genetic history that turned Callie into Cal.

As a sort of ‘radio drama’ it worked quite well, and although I didn’t care for Kristoffer Tabori’s voice, I can’t deny that he was an excellent reader. I found the narrative style a little odd though. In an interview at the end of the audio Eugenides explained why it was necessary to use both a first person narrative and a third person omniscient. The tale is told by Cal in the first person, which makes sense because of the complication of having to call Cal “she” for part of the book and “he” for the rest. Annoying, and not a true representation of who the character is. The story begins with Cal’s grandparents in a tiny village in Greece though, and throughout the story there is a massive amount of information that Cal couldn’t possibly have known – and he admits this, asking to be excused for letting his imagination fill in the gaps. The story is therefore stranded in a curious state between fact and fiction (while in reality being entirely fiction, at least to the extent that any book written by an author who is alive and has experienced life is fictional.) I had moments of difficulty while trying to wrap my head around this – the suspension of belief involved, and how that interfered with my belief in Cal or the trustworthiness of the narrative. Or something. Ahem.

Anyway. The historical details of the book interested me and the genetic stuff was quite fascinating, but overall I wasn’t impressed with it. One of the major reasons for this was made crystal clear to me when I read Emily’s recent review at Evening All Afternoon. We shared a mutual disgruntlement over the seeming lack of trust Eugenides had in our abilities as readers. There was a great deal of foreshadowing and coincidences in the story, which can be mildly annoying if they aren’t dealt with subtly (and thrilling when they seem to come naturally). In Middlesex, these structural ploys were not only not subtle (Callie will soon be revealed to be between sexes, and meanwhile the family moves to a house in Grosse Pointe that is on a street named Middlesex?!) but Eugenides felt the need to remind his readers of earlier plot points or themes that paralleled or elaborated on the current ones, as though they couldn’t be trusted to remember on their own… Irritating. And eye-roll inducing in some cases.

While it wasn’t by any means all bad, Middlesex didn’t really help me overcome my aversion to the Modern Family Epic, and I also don’t feel any compelling need to read Eugenides’ other book, The Virgin Suicides. (Which doesn’t mean that I won’t pick up the audio version if I see it…!) It did help me knock out 21 hours worth of commuting time though, so thanks for that I guess. I’m curious to see what audio book sucks me in next…! 🙂


  1. I found this similarly dissatisfying, and I’m glad you brought up the point of view problem. That drove me absolutely crazy.

    I have heard, though, that The Virgin Suicides is actually a much better book, so I’ll probably give it a try one day.

    • Okay, so maybe I’ll actually make an effort to find The Virgin Suicides in audio format. I have to admit to a certain amount of curiosity. Just not the totally compelled kind. 🙂

  2. I will say that I think The Virgin Suicides is vastly superior to Middlesex. It is not a Modern Family Epic by any means and the writing was actually quite luminous. I thought it was far more layered and intricate as well as less heavy-handed compared to Middlesex. I wouldn’t forsake Eugenides until you’ve read that!

    • Good to know. I won’t cross it off the TBR list yet!

  3. I concur with the others, i think The Virgin Suicides must be better. The movie certainly is very good, no? It’s interesting what you say about the family epic… I like familiy stories but feel also hardly drwan to books tht qualify as such… I always have afeeling it is gerne that is written by authors who go for wild fabulating (can you say that in English?)… Unbridled fantasizing. Like people who knock you down with too much talk. Do I make sense? I heard so many people praise Middlesex and still it has been lying here and must be covered in dust by now… I am still mildly interested… What I find really offputting is when writers think they have to play tricks like the ones you describe… Unsubtle foreshadowing and coincidences…

    • I feel like foreshadowing and coincidences are a huge part of the Family Epic format, and yes – unbridled fantasizing abounds! But I would really have to knock out a few more of this type of story to really form an opinion, which is problematic since I’m not drawn to the type… 🙂

  4. Haha, glad to see we see so eye to eye on this one, Sarah! I agree that it wasn’t terrible enough that I would have stopped listening to an audio version during my commute – guess I should have gone with that option rather than reading it in text form. Overall I was left just feeling apathetic about it; there were enjoyable bits, but they were compromised by all those annoying narrative quirks we’ve both pointed out. Ah well.

    • I would definitely be willing to try a narrative that had all the enjoyable bits, minus the annoying quirks of this one. I picked up some titles from your post on Middlesex, and now that I’ve broken the seal on Modern Family Epics I’m actually quite curious to try something else – perhaps in audio format, just to stay on the safe side! 🙂

  5. […] Other Reviews: What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate […]

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